Baltimore is experiencing a renaissance of ideas and entrepreneurship driven from the bottom-up; with a little support from the top-down, this renaissance has the potential to transform our economy. I challenge Baltimore’s economic development organizations to invest in this promising trend by sponsoring a new “Innovation Community Manager” staff position charged with supporting the community leading this transformation.
A large corps of self-organizing volunteers is creating this movement through important initiatives like Startup Weekend, Transmodern Festival, Betascape, and D:center. Usually operating apart from established institutions, Baltimore’s artists, technologists, and businesspeople are refashioning the city as an ecosystem of idea exchanges and curated conversations. This ecosystem can produce a new generation of modern companies and cultural assets that productively employ our citizens, pay their share of taxes, retain and attract residents, and nourish civic life.
How do we sustain the renaissance?
These changes will not fully materialize without staff and logistical support because there are practical limits to what volunteers can achieve on their own. There is much duplication of effort across these projects as scrappy organizers scrounge for resources and expertise. If you feel excited by what’s happening in Baltimore today, just imagine if Baltimore innovators could call upon a trusted person or small team to handle common details like these:
- Negotiating for space with venues (good venues are usually controlled by large institutions confused by who the volunteers are, why they’re not affiliated with another large institution, and why they can’t pay high rental fees)
- Seeking financial sponsors and media partners
- Finding a fiscal agent to handle details like accepting checks and reimbursing volunteers for expenses
- Renting equipment (like wireless microphones, HD cameras, and projectors)
- Printing programs, banners and t-shirts
- Publicizing and marketing events (most of these programs are marketed over the Internet, which leaves out a large segment of the populace)
With the right community manager in place, larger institutions could back this “new Baltimore” and connect with the city’s new generation of thought leaders via a single point of contact. Today, if you are the President of Johns Hopkins or the CIO of Legg Mason or the CTO of BillMeLater and you want to sponsor innovative programming, you have to talk to dozens of people and write a series of small checks. What if you could write one larger check to a responsible, accountable person who could instantly connect you to the innovation renaissance?
Supported by a community manager, innovators would then be free to focus on getting things done, instead of constantly figuring out how to get things done. More high-impact ideas would take root because their activation energy would decrease: would-be organizers would know exactly who to talk to first.
A small investment with large dividends
Imagine Baltimore becoming known internationally as the home of Betascape (the way Austin is known as the home of SXSW), or FOOD=ART and Sometimes inspiring a new style of cooking, or a whole new type of restaurant. Imagine programmers from all over the US coming to attend a Civic Hack Day or a SocialDevCamp. Imagine communities bound together via dozens of Baltimore Getdowns or LOVE Project installations. Imagine having ideas like these and knowing you live in a town that will back you, help you find funding, and help you manage logistics.
Now imagine you’re about to graduate from a college in the city, or that you’re considering leaving your job at a big company, and you’d like to start your own business or support yourself as an artist. Do you want to get started in Baltimore, or should you move somewhere else? Imagine you’ve been attending programs like Create Baltimore or Innovate Baltimore, or you’ve spent the last few months working on projects at the Node hackerspace. All along you’ve been connecting with like-minded innovators and potential collaborators; with that kind of energy flowing around the city and the sort of talent it attracts, why would you ever leave?
What you are imagining already exists on some level; acquaintances from other cities often marvel at Baltimore’s new energetic creativity. But if our city is to realize its future as a place full of people busy building and inventing on a globally competitive level, it needs to sustain the movement providing that energy. Investing in an Innovation Community Manager is a small but important way to get started, for this is a community that can change Baltimore.