Yesterday I went with the Blandin team and the Iron Range Broadband Communities to Bemidji to talk about innovation and reinvention. The meeting wasn’t all about broadband – but I wanted to share notes – because it was a great opportunity for attending communities to learn from a community that very intentionally set goals and met them. Part of that was getting and using broadband but to a larger degree it was about getting the community to take continued and renewing responsibility for the community future.
The day started with a presentation from Jim Benson (former Bemidji State University president) on how Greater Bemidji planned from their future. The created a vision of what they wanted to be and then worked toward it. They began with a meeting to figure out their expertise, passion and hopes. Leaders stepped up at the meeting and they have been meeting monthly for 15 years.
One lesson was the importance of language and intentionality. One quick example is that they wanted to work on a 4-land highway from the Twin Cities to Bemidji – not a highway to the Cities. Also and at least as important is the continued effort. They meet goals and set new ones – which keeps the motion forward.
We heard from a few folks who have worked on efforts in the community to spur innovation, invention and entrepreneurship:
They held first event in April (2017). Limited to 100 attendees but livestream viewers were up to 650. Learned that the most curious people are often the more involved in a community so TEDx has been a way to gather and cultivate curious people. They will be releasing videos in June. (There’s apparently one on broadband in rural communities and I’m looking forward to that!!)
Gaming has been a way to really pound the heck out the gig access. They held an event (sponsored by Paul Bunyan) where 28 teams participated. It got the attention of very techie people. Builds local techie skills. This year 23 people applied for internships at Paul Bunyan this year – based on recognition from the gaming event. Previously they had not been such a hot spot for interns.
The idea of a gaming event seemed crazy but the folks in charge approved whole heartedly and now it’s made an impact.
There are 35 coworkers in the space. Rural coworking is rare – but internationally it’s big. Transplants to Bemidji made the transition easily. It’s a place for meetings. It saves people from isolation. It provides resources and motivation.
Used Million cups as a model to create a weekly meeting for entrepreneur that suits Bemidji. They have 35-50 people come each week.
Bemidji hosted a hackfest to bring techies together with a problem to solve. They had 9 teams. At night there was a game design challenge. Kids loved that! The next day was a more traditional hackfest.
They distribute refurbished computers. Working with Blandin, they have been able to bring computers to rural communities. Sometimes those computers go to households, maybe a public computer center, key nonprofits or used a rewards to get people to participation in digital inclusion training or other efforts.
GigaZone – Steve Howard from Paul Bunyan
Steve talked about the power of gig economy from the provider perspective. It has been an investment for the company (and a big one at that) but they are happy with their decision to invest.
They have found some ways to be the economy of fiber optic infrastructure work?
- Economies of scale
- Reduced transit costs
- Reduced backhaul costs (DWDM)
He had some advice for how to attract a rural broadband provider?
- Get data and do a survey – map the results!
- Economic development staff and community champions
- Identify needs
- Identify how much money people are willing to pay
- Map the results and get them in front of the providers.
- Be responsive when communicating with providers
- Consider grant funding – offer to help get letters of support and assist with applications
- Be polite but professionally persistent
We ended the tour with a stop at Bemidji Brewing to hear about how the story of how those owners decided to move to Bemidji to start their brewery. They actively looked at communities all over Minnesota. Part of the decision was based on the “up north” feel of the area but support from the community was important as well.