Goodbye Simon

I’m kind of in mourning. Simon Delivers will make its final run in the next two weeks. About 8 years ago I developed curriculum for an e-Business Institute. Simon Delivers was one of our favorite Minnesota-grown success stories.

And the news of Simon Delivers comes after a week of talking to people who are also running into troubles. One conversation was with a resort owner; they’re having troubles getting people to drive up for their vacation. Another conversation was with someone who runs events and conferences. They can’t get people to drive to events. In both conversations the price of gas was the direct and indirect problem.

While I was in Dublin I heard people complain about the economy back home. But in Dublin gas (or petrol) is $8 a gallon; so $4 a gallon didn’t seem so bad. But now that I’m home I’m seeing firsthand that things really are different from a year ago.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been trying to think about how/if broadband can make a difference. For folks like the resorters, it’s tough. A virtual vacation just isn’t as much fun. But for many other folks, I think broadband can be a big money saver.

Drawing back on the days of the e-Business Institute, I know that people were always most interested in how to make money online but I think saving money online might be at least as valuable today. I see more interest in saving money and saving the environment – although definitely in that order.

I see that a few states (New Mexico and Connecticut) are already looking at telecommuting for government staff. For many people there is no real need to go into the office everyday – the economy might open the door for more companies to take advantage of working from home or working from a neutral ground (business incubator of coffee shop) closer to home.

Web conferencing is another big money saving application. It can be used for e-learning, presentations or even one-on-one meetings. According to AHN, the video conferencing industry grew by 30 percent last year. My favorite conferencing story has to be the virtual field trips in schools. Because of the expense, kids have been taking virtual trips. As a parent, I say that’s great. Let the school arrange a virtual trip to the Rain Forest and I can supplement with a weekend trip to the Rain Forest section of Como Zoo.

But beyond web and video conferencing is a host of real online collaboration tools used by manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and their Center for Innovation. Here’s a brief description:

The encrypted and secure high-bandwidth network brings government developers and Lockheed Martin’s domain experts together online to work in live and virtual collaboration. They can, for example, collaborate in real time on “sense and respond” focused logistics experimentation, border security concerns and assess the operational impact of new systems as they are being constructed.

I suspect that level of online collaboration will be commonplace – eventually. Location will become a non-issue- but their first line says it all – it’s built on high bandwidth connection.

How can communities – especially rural communities – help local businesses thrive despite the current economy? They need to provide them with the tools that let them play in an environment where location doesn’t matter. It’s getting to a point where it is too expensive to drive anywhere and while that will hurt in the short term, I think it is an opportunity for innovation and that’s something we still do well in Minnesota.

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