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The next wave of digital jobs in America January 1, 2011

Posted by Bernard Lunn in Uncategorized.

I woke up in the New Year/Decade and saw something that inspired my New Year’s Resolution – work on stuff that matters.

The inspiration was a tweet from Marc Canter to this YouTube video about his Digital City Mechanics project. It is inspiring and easy to watch.

His mission seems to be to bring new digital jobs to cities that have been left behind by technology and that therefore have massive unemployment. The city he seems most  focussed on is Cleveland, but we can all think of many others, most obviously Detroit.

I am sure he is right that the next wave of jobs will have to be fundamentally digital. (There will also be Punk Manufacturing and Local Farming, but both of those also need digital infrastructure). And that cannot happen without dirt cheap massive bandwidth everywhere. I can envisage entrepreneurs moving to places that are really cheap – longer runway to Ramen profitability – as long as there is massive bandwidth everywhere.

And massive bandwidth everywhere is so ridiculously cheap to do compared to all the big budget-busters in government spending. Korea did this and you can see the payoff there.

I can envisage American politicians bloviating about this – massive bandwidth everywhere enables a chicken in every pot – but sadly my faith in politicians (apart from a few Mayors) is at an all time low. So this has to be a private sector initiative.

I think big tech companies WILL fund this. Quest seems to be doing something to sponsor Marc’s mission. But the real biggies – Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Intel, IBM – all stand to benefit massively from this and they could get this off the ground by investing a rounding error in their monthly P&L.

Yes, I know, these big companies are now global and they will prosper if the big emerging markets bring new consumers into the global economy, as they will, even if unemployment in America sucks. But even if you assume that the leaders of these big companies don’t care about their home country (I am not that cynical, I think they do care, they are also busy and have an overriding responsibility to shareholders), they need the American economy to recover faster. The emerging markets won’t pick up the slack fast enough. And America has always had the most innovative consumers and that really matters.

And in this social media age the blurring lines between consumers, audience and workers means that the biggies cannot prosper if the reality for a big % of the population sucks badly.

There is a massive disconnect that I see every day. On the one side I am seeing the old “war for talent” coming back and I know first hand how tough it is to hire for certain skill sets. On the other hand, that unemployment rate seems stuck at 9% (yes I know that is the headline/official figure and the real number is much higher). Last year (actually just a few days ago) I penned this very bullish post on Read Write Web about the coming tech/media IPO boom in 2011. Kid Mercury points out in comments that unless the consumer economy recovers all this tech/media boom will evaporate. I think he is right. But I also think that unemployment will improve, so the macroeconomics are still on the mend. I don’t know where the jobs will come from but I am confident that America has a very dynamic economy and the jobs will come.

The problem – and it is a very big and ugly problem – is that it is taking far longer than usual to create those jobs and huge numbers of people will be totally left behind and won’t ever find good jobs. That is a helluva lot of blighted lives and that is very, very sad. Yep, the New Year celebrations are over and the world still has a lot of things that suck!

So I  really believe that those of us in the good tech/media jobs have a responsibility to try and do something about this. Marc Canter is clearly trying.

Marc is totally right to focus on massive bandwidth everywhere. It would be like aiming for better sanitation without working on plumbing.

But I think that  massive bandwidth everywhere alone is not enough. The big missing piece, the elephant in the room, is basic education. Without really good basic education that massive bandwidth everywhere will simply be used to CONSUME videos and games. The health of the economy depends on a reasonable balance of CREATORS as well as CONSUMERS.

I have been involved in a very small way with basic education in my area with the Rhinebeck Science Foundation (my wife, Julia Spiegel, is a founder). Among other initiatives, this Foundation works with Project Lead The Way, which already has a lot of tech industry validation and backing.

Marc’s initiative that I saw today triggered memories of something I was thinking about a couple of years ago but sadly did not make the time/energy to do anything about. Shame on me.

Here are my notes from about 2 years ago, although the original inspiration was more like 3 years ago. I left it unedited:

This is about one idea that has been bugging me for ages and I have not had the time to get off the ground. I have tested it on a few friends/family who think I am nuts but that it might have something worth pursuing.

I call it the Fleischmanns plan, after this sad little poster child for rural poverty in America. I found this place by accident while going skiing at a nearby resort. The contrast between the skiing place and this village – only a few miles away – was stunning and saddening. All shops/cinema boarded up. Houses with caved in roof. Only one place open – a coffee shop – totally empty at 10am on a Sunday.

I have often wondered why one village is prosperous and another one is not. I think that there are 3 aspects (not in any order of importance, all are needed)

  1. Bandwidth. Young creative/tech people will move to a cheap beautiful area if there is mega fast bandwidth. We have the technology for this (Wimax etc). That brings new money and cachet to the area. It used to be that hippies and gays were the pioneers in new areas – follow them and make money in real estate was a simple formula. Today that rule is follow the creative/tech workers who can be distant independent. Methinks Intel and other interested big tech vendors might be donors of equipment.
  2. K-12 School. If the school is no good, people leave when they want to start a family. That makes the initial young singles entry unsustainable. This is where I have come up with a rather more wild idea. This idea came from seeing a lot of public and private schools for my now 8 year old son. We saw one public school in downtown Manhattan that was superb, better than most private schools. Run by a real leader. The property prices in the area had risen big time as families moved to the area for the school – we nearly did that ourselves. It kept bugging me that the school principal and teachers did not benefit from the rise in poperty prices. More on that later.
  3. Branding. Lots of local people would benefit from “location branding” (think Champagne from France, or any number of examples from Europe). This drives tourism and e-commerce. My work as an advisor to this venture helped me see this. Not just food – any artisanal products. The incoming young creative/tech people would be naturals to drive this.

The idea of linking teacher pay to rise in property prices is the most radical. Think of a young teacher saying “let me invest years to build a really great school in this area and let me see some upside from that investment”. Talent does tend to follow money. Here are some of the pieces – this a bit short-hand:

  • 501c3 that invests in real estate within a school district
  • run by a local realtor who is paid a bonus based on profit
  • An evergreen fund – profits/rents are re-invested
  • Startup school – teachers and head gets bonus based on profits from the real estate fund
  • School can be private or charter – but has to be outside the public school system
  • Need a fund to enable everybody’s kids to attend (as it will be outside the public school system).

Choose school district with these criteria:

* low property prices for low end houses (ie excl 2nd home market)
* failing public school (don’t want to go in with a private initiative to ruin a public school that is OK and trying hard to be better)
* natural beauty, sports, lifestyle
* good college fairly nearby

Random notes:

  • Profits from real estate fund plus seperate endowments (eg Gates) to give scholarships to enough kids to close the public school
  • Work to reduce property tax as no need to fund school
  • House in village and land for investment/future house
  • Local tax incentives for start-up biz.
  • FleischmanBitFactory – nerds artists and writers – do as llc with coop ownership
  • Fleischmans Butcher – branded grass fed beef venison chicken wild turkey etc
  • Diner with all local food
  • Small scale conference center

Marc Canter is working on cities. My thoughts were on rural. That is just a lifestyle choice, the poverty/unemployment problems are dire in both.

Focussing on cities is smart. Young singles can move to cities and don’t care about schools, that only comes later when/if they have kids. But methinks a real flourishing local economy needs all types to be motivated to stay, so the married with kids crowd need to feel good about the area as well. But at least you can get started with massive bandwidth everywhere and young singles and the education and kids stuff can come later.

So what can I do about this? Well I  will start by writing this and getting some link love from friends in the media. I will also ask Marc what help he needs.



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