These are my prepared remarks for my keynote of the 2014 RAIN (Regional Affinity Incubator Network) conference held at the University City Science Center in July. Throughout the speech, I shared a number of other examples and anecdotes but this is the primary focus.
A coworking movement, a tech boom, a post-recession entrepreneurship frenzy have all conspired to bring all of you to where you are today. That’s seen in the success and growth of this RAIN conference. This is fashionable right now. That is an opportunity to impact our communities but we must also recognize the risk that presents.
I want to address the framework that many of you helped shape when registering by highlights priorities for the Philadelphia region. But though I’ll use local examples, I’ll also want to pull more widely, from our reporting in other cities — now Brooklyn, Baltimore and Delaware, plus plans for DC by this fall — and the broader national conversation when I’m able to.
First, we must remember why we care about this conversation. We are shaping our cities and communities by bringing together the smartest people we have and aligning them with the resources and networks to have a lasting impact on where we live. Everything we do here should be to better collaborate across communities that can widen the reach of our work. More of our fellow residents should benefit from our work.
This event is focused on sharing what works and developing priorities for the future to do just that.
Collaborative work places — coworking, accelerators, incubators, multi-unit collocation campuses, etc — will be a part of commercial corridor planning and business and creative community development for generations. I believe that.
In early 2012, on Technical.ly Philly, we published our first cautionary report about what the explosion of shared workspaces might mean. With (a) community-focused coworking, (b) program-focused acceleration and (c) development focused incubators, plus (d) campus-style clustering like the Science Center. There were 16 shared spaces live or coming online. The number of collaborative desks for startups and technologists more than doubled in that previous six months. Of them, all are live. In the last two years, at least seven more launched — and all are still live save for three, by our count.
This pace is catching Philadelphia up to larger collaborative-space markets, like Brooklyn and Boston. Many are having to find distinctions — Venturef0rth built a business network relationship, helped by DreamIt Ventures and its DreamIt Health program, which will soon be an anchor of the InnovatonCenter@3401 Market Street; Benjamin’s Desk has focused beyond tech for a broader business ecosystem and Old City’s Indy Hall, backed by cofounder Alex Hillman, has remained rigorous in its focus on the right mix of individual people, not companies or brands.
You are developing new R&D facilities for risk averse big business and serving as a workforce development pipeline in a jobs-less economic recovery. You also are anchors in urban revival and marketing change. But like in any change like this, there needs to be enough experimentation in model that there will be failure.
Until there is failure in building innovation clusters, then we haven’t stretched the model far enough.
What we have seen is the maturing build out of collaborative spaces as a staple of community building nationally. Set aside the Bay Area, New York and Boston for their decades-strong movement here and residual economic capital, and regions across this country should not be competing to be better than someone else, we should be competing to be the best version on ourselves, a much healthier and attainable goal, aided by awareness of the work our peers do.
It’s telling that the ways you said Philadelphia should move forward to become one of the country’s most productive innovation hubs are ones that might likely be listed by your peers in many places in the country. They’re also ones that collaborative spaces like yours are well suited to address.
1. Retaining Talent (especially students) — We stay in a place because of networks we discover.
Look at how community is being developed and particularly young, newer residents to their cities are finding networks at places like Indy Hall, The Loft from Start It Up Delaware, Drexel’s Innovation Center @3401 and First Round Capital.
2. Attracting Capital — We need to create density to attract investment.
In more rural or less traditional tech hubs, communities can come together at places like HotDesks on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Beach Desks in Rehobeth, Delaware and Walnut Street Labs in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
It can also happen at big anchor hubs like the Science center, the Maryland BioPark and Betamore.
3. Navigating Government — respondents highlighted a need for both more government support and less regulations, and shared subject-matter experts help incubate learning.
Look at Venturef0rth in Philly and 1776 in DC, both of which serve as an entry point for government officials and a place where regulated industries like healthcare can pool subject matter experts.
4. Engaging Large Companies with Small — Greater efficiency of connections can happen at colocation facilities.
We see this at Benjamin’s Desk in Philly that develops relationships with big companies like Comcast and Independence Blue Cross, and institutionally-networked groups like Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Center and the Penn Innovation Center
5. What’s next?
You see there is a mixture of the two directions these shared spaces are coming from. Smaller communities that radiate out, the origins of coworking, and large collocation efforts by institutions often real estate efforts first.
The community-first groups call the larger ones inauthentic. The real-estate groups call the others in strategic or exclusive. The obvious reality is both of these criticisms are true in some cases but we need both if the goal is a pipeline for hosting and growing a network of entrepreneurs and independent knowledge workers.
What it is apparent in our reporting is that the innovation hub conversation will deeply impact commercial real estate, but it’s a far wider conversation. Likewise, tech entrepreneurship has been a popular focus of this conversation, but this is a reshaping of where, why and how work gets done.
As ecommerce becomes commerce, where business gets done will still involve people, but it might not always be where the customers are, it may be where the right talent lies.
So as diverse as the people, businesses and work that reflect a community becomes, so too should the places it can get done. You all need a distinction, a reason why yours is a place where people should come together and it won’t only be a question of location.
I’m thinking of KEYSPOT, the network of computer labs in low-income communities in Philadelphia, many of which are managed by the city’s Parks and Rec Department. I was speaking to someone from the Parks and Rec who talked about how hardware wasn’t what they needed: they needed programming. A reason for people to learn was why people came.
We all make decisions emotionally. We decide where to work, less because of hard data of impact, and more because it suits the narrative we tell ourselves. If we want to connect with talent, collaborative creatively and enjoy — while getting the resources we need in a convenient location — we look toward places these are grouped.
You need to do the back-of-the-envelope math about keeping your doors open, but the first reason we decide to be somewhere is if there are the right people there.
We know why this movement is so widespread right now. The only way it will last is you focus on providing the best experience for the people, for the collective community, you are serving.