Digital Cities and Why I Moved to Northern Ohio

This is part 2 of a series written by Marc Canter about digital cities and fiber optic networks.

As the economic roller coaster ride over the past 20 years has taken us to new highs and lows, Cleveland and the Northern Ohio region have seen their economy flatline.  Once known as the home of innovation in America, Northern Ohio has turned into a poster child of the demise of our manufacturing base, as we exemplify what it means to have economic doldrums and experience urban decay.

When the white labeled social networking world started to tank two years ago, I started to search around for a change. I had lived in California for 21 years, moving out there on our VC’s insistence, but refusing to move into the Valley.  Instead we wore our black leather jackets proudly and moved into an area called (South of Market) SOMA in San Francisco – actually being the first software company to do so – in 1988.

If I would have tried to start my Digital City project in NY, LA or SF – I would barely be noticed.

But here in Cleveland I’ve been welcomed with open arms! I was offered a teaching position at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), I was made a portfolio company of the Youngstown Business Incubator and I met a cadre of social media mavens – who actually knew who I was and had been following my blogging on open standards and ‘dashboards’ for years.

So it was with newfound conviction that I set about to figure out how to build the Digital City project I envisaged here in Cleveland and the surrounding NEO region.  Akron, Youngstown, Oberlin – are all within an hour’s drive and by my Bay Area standards – that’s the same place!

I quickly identified that the real issues here in NEO (North Eastern Ohio) had nothing to do with software infrastructure or open standards.  Here in NEO the issue is JOBS – first and foremost! Without jobs your city disappears (as Chrissie Hynde sings….)

The best part of being here is that everyone I’ve met seems pretty pissed off at all the failed attempts at digging themselves out of their economic doldrums.  They’re tired of sitting around and waiting for change.  They’re doing it themselves.

I sat and talked to workforce development experts here and to my surprise (and horror) not one of them defined workforce development the same way.  One even went so far as to dividing up the population into two camps: unemployable and those with five years experience on the job. In the workforce development world – a job is something you go to work for 40 hours a week, join a Union (if you’re lucky), put in 30 years and call it a life.

This spelled opportunity to my entrepreneurial eyes and ears.  All I could think of was how much this system needed to be improved. It’s a similar challenge to what we were faced with in 1983-84 – when we set about to turn a black monochromatic PC into a multimedia authoring and playback system.

So I’ve dug my heels in, moved to Ohio and have been working on this Digital City project since August 2009.

One of the first things I discovered was that there IS money here, but it has to be pried loose.  Some of the world’s oldest and richest foundations are based here in NEO – all derived from the original industrialists who built our country and made this region a leading innovation center between 1870-1920.

I also discovered that right after agriculture (which is a $93B a year industry), polymers comes in at $89B a year!  That includes a company called P&G – where almost everything they make and package with – is made of polymers. In Akron there’s the Goodyear Polymer Center that houses over 50 PhD’s, holds over 1,000 patents and had this huge building that just reeks “we got money.”

But what they don’t have are extensive on-line multimedia encyclopedias on polymers.  There is this wonderful place called the Akron Global Polymer Academy which provides videos and training materials to high school teachers – but in general – there is almost NO on-line polymer multimedia encyclopedias filled with visualizations, animations, interactive user interfaces, or other forms of live dynamic multimedia.

So I thought “gee – why should people have to  get onto a plane and FLY to Akron, OH – why can’t they go on-line and find out all this information?” And then I thought “Gee – shouldn’t P&G or Chevron or Monsanto or DuPont want to sponsor some sexy polymer multimedia encyclopedias that would emblazon their logo for all to see – for the rest of eternity?”

“Isn’t this the fulfillment of our dream of persistent ubiquitous multimedia encyclopedias?”

Indeed in 1987 I was caught saying “I want to develop multimedia encyclopedias.” It just seemed really obvious to me.

So that set me thinking about Wikipedia and how long it will take to convert it to multimedia and how much money it will cost to convert even a  fraction of the more than 3 million entries in Wikipedia into multimedia.  “If the people won’t pay for the NY Times, movies or music – who is going to pay for all this on-line multimedia content?”

P&G!  Monsanto!  DuPont!  Chevron!

As marketing dollars have moved from traditional advertising and media to on-line media, so too will major marketing spends get diversified and channeled into new forms of sponsorship.  If I was P&G or Chevron I’d want to be associated with creating the world’s best, most exciting set of polymer multimedia games, visualizations, interactive construction kits, dynamic simulations and videos.

Take a look at these images from a recent NSF contestThis is what I’m talking about!

Animated arrows depicting battles.  Scientific visualizations.  3D microscopic fly throughs.

Self-assembling polymers – from Harvard

Flower imagery – 10 micrometers tall – from UNC – Chapel Hill

And if Ohio is a hotbed for polymers – so would every region and city in the world have some native, regional industry and set of corporations who might want to sponsor on-line multimedia content if that money was ALSO going into workforce development and creating a software infrastructure platform that their local Digital City and Citizens would benefit from.

This is the 3:1 essence of the sustainable model I envisage.

Workforce development dollars are ALREADY being poured into training projects and programs that do no good – so why can’t we repurpose that money into a sustainable model which WILL work!  In Ohio alone $540M was spent last year in job training.  $540M and there’s barely anything to show for it!

Now add to the equation that these dollars spent on sponsorships could be paid to a non-profit who would build and run the Digital City shared servers, operate the ‘virtuous circle’ training process and produce the multimedia content – and all of a sudden these corporations now have charitable write-offs to cut their taxes!

Think of the combination of a) tax writeoffs, b) PR windfalls, c) help out your local economy and d) the fact that you’re going to get credit for all this sexy online multimedia content and games that you paid for – which will reside in the Cloud and be viewed by people all around the world!

Do you know that the Burger King driving game – which sold for $4.99 at POS in 1,000’s of Burger Kings – made over $200M in revenues?  Marketing today is taking on a new face, made up of 100’s of different angles. Sponsoring the world’s multimedia encyclopedias is going to be one of those angles….

We’ve all seen viral videos, blogging campaigns and loyalty and ratings contests become mainstay on-line marketing promotional techniques– so TOO will sponsoring compelling multimedia games, content and visualizations!

Once I came to this realization that the number of bodies with relevant skillsets necessary to produce all this content would need to increase 10 fold – then 100 fold – then 1,000 fold – I knew that the business of training workers in multimedia skillsets was going to be huge.  But today’s training methods fall short of producing knowledgeable workers the intricacies and potential of using computers as a tool – just like some modern day hammer or screwdriver.

So I knew we needed a radically different approach to training – and my hunch was that social media had something to do with it!

Too often the computer is thought of as a specialized device, capable of doing one or two tasks.  But today’s “Facebook generation” know only too well how flexible and powerful on-line technology can be.  Virtually all new workers coming into the workforce are comfortable and familiar with basic social media skills.

Tomorrow’s workforce will utilize social media skillsets to ‘build relationships between customers, colleagues, vendors or bosses, or provide forms of help or support.  And since most jobs have some aspect of interaction with people, applying a knowledgeable set of ‘social media’ skills to any given job will become a common practice.  Applying social media skillsets to a given problem will often lead to positive solutions.

Workers of tomorrow will participate in, and immerse themselves in a community, conversations and sharing that will enable them to harness social media skillsets that can be applied any job.  These skillsets might be how to blog about the intersection of your profession and interest or use Google Docs for accounting and invoicing.  Some social media training might include multimedia skills like how to take a photo, emboss a title on it – and sell it as a card or poster or shoot video footage and edit it together for a marketing promotion.

I envisage social media ambassadors being “lent” to medium to large sized corporations and embedded within an enterprise organization.  Our trained ‘social media advocates’ would demonstrate specifically how blogs, wikis, mail lists, dashboard start pages, social media sharing, real-time conversations and aggregating content would help out the enterprise.

Our bet is that after six months – the corporation would hire these social media advocates.  But we have to work from the inside out, rather than approach an enterprise organization from the outside with “you need to fix this, and act like that and do this” kind of consulting.

Our virtuous circle process will train our interns how to harness the power of social media and apply it to a wide range of jobs and professions.  We’ll show them how to set up their dashboards, configure their aggregators, identify the RIGHT kind of content to watch and read and apply their job skills and personality to the right kind of profession.

This act of “learning by doing” is a time honored technique for acquainting a trainee to a new job skill.

My past life (in multimedia) helps my present life (building Digital City infrastructures) to help build our future (with plenty of jobs for all).  For every project we produce with our sponsorship partners, we’ll promise to: a) create this incredible compelling on-line content, which will b) train local workers in the job skills necessary to produce that content and c) use the same money to serve up this open content – for all to benefit and use.

Let me get more specific.

Let me use a different example than polymers – probably a bit esoteric for most to understand.  Let’s say that we do a project with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  The Hall has 25,000 artifacts in its collection yet the Rock Hall is a mausoleum – pretty much an example of best intentions gone awry. A typical Cleveland story.  Now let’s say we go to Key Bank or Progressive Insurance or some other local financial institution and propose “let’s create a series of exciting on-line games, videos, historical documentaries and visualizations on the ‘History of the Blues’.”

We hire 50 local videographers, web page designers, scriptors, writers, programmers, editors and producers and attach a trainee to each one of them. Now we’ve got between 100 and 150 people working on a project, creating something that not only brings the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to life – around the world – but also provides an open platform with open APIs (application programming interfaces) so that OTHER software products, services and students can access and utilize this same content in THEIR own work.

This re-usage of content and open data is at the essence of what the Creative Commons is all about and what our new ‘remix’ culture has embraced and highlighted over the past decade.  Public domain and copyrighted materials that are covered by Creative Commons licenses can legally be utilized – via open APIs.  And if we can get local sponsorship dollars to pay for these kind of ‘shared open data servers’ – we can help the R&R Hall of Fame get some street cred AND train local Cleveland workers in marketable skillsets along the way.

And how do we identify which trainees get to learn these skillsets?  We’ll vet them by putting them through a ‘virtuous circle’ process of training and volunteerism.

I’ll dive into more details on this ‘virtuous circle’ process in my final installment of this series, but let me finish up this article on the other kinds of shared servers which will be available in our Digital City.  These servers will provide ubiquitous, cloud based infrastructure 24/7/365.  These shared servers will utilize this fiber optic we’re getting installed into our streets, mid-mile hubs and ultimately into our homes and apartments.

–       A Digital City ID server – this server will federate all of the local city’s banks, hospitals and health systems, libraries, large enterprise employee system’s and other institutions with OpenID and other open ID systems.  This means that Digital Citizens will be able to have a standard card which they’ll use to login anywhere and have an integrated compelling experience.

–       Historical timeline server – which would aggregate tagged on-line content, media, and interview footage shot with local senior citizens.  An oral history of a city can be built – with open APIs allowing any software developer to build on top of those interviews or ‘Ken Burns’-like historical artifacts.  Other history databases can be layered into the content of this shared server, enabling new kinds of applications and services that utilize historical data.  This is what augmented reality is all about – layering history on top of the physical world.  Historical data which will be visualized, animated or told as a story and made available for inclusion in presentations, curriculum or news stories.

–       A webcam and surveillance cam server –would aggregate all of the city’s real-time cameras into one environment.  The server would host ‘location pages’ which would be dedicated to the intersection and geo coordinates of a particular camera.  Each location page would list what other cams were in the direct vicinity, what Digital Citizens lived nearby, what restaurants, shops and other key commercial entities were located nearby and provide a way for any citizen to contribute to that page.

–       Jobs, Events and Business Directories – would be open sourced and made available for all to use.

–       Structured Content databases – such as Freebase or Twine – which would enable all kinds of data to be compared to other kinds of data – thereby allowing Digital Citizens to tap into the real value of their social capital – and monetize their reputation.


History of Innovation timeline

Chrissie Hynde – “Ohio

Goodyear Polymer Center

Akron Global Polymer Academy

Self-assembling polymers – from Harvard

Flower imagery – 10 micrometers tall – from NUC – Chapel Hill

My post on the images from the contest

R&R Hall of Fame

Creative Commons

Augmented reality



If you missed part 1 of this series, click below:

Digital Cities and Fiber Optic Technology

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About the author

Marc Canter, CEO of Broadband Mechanics (BBM) is a 25+ year veteran of the software business. BBM is a boutique social networking design and platform shop -specializing in building systems that support the open stack, custom semi-private networks and strategic thinking. Marc is an advocate of open social networking, open standards and what he calls the ‘open mesh‘. Marc was the co-founder of MacroMind, which became Macromedia.