The pioneers and pacesetters of New Orleans’ business community understand the perils of trying to build a durable institution without a blueprint. In an effort to successfully map out the future of Louisiana’s most notorious city, local leaders recently ventured north to Minneapolis for an “Urban Workshop” that brought to the surface many tangible examples of hazards and winning strategies encountered during the process of city redevelopment. Back home, representatives from educational and technological communities are looking toward the Naval Information Technology Center as a shining example of New Orleans’ potential for the 21st Century. Simultaneously, grassroots change agents are working to bolster local institutions such as the New Orleans Center for Science and Math, and the New Orleans Technology Council, which they believe demonstrate the passion and purpose of a reinvigorated city.
I just returned from a three-day conference on regionalism. It was based in Minneapolis and it was called ‘Urban Workshop ’99.’ About 80 leaders from the New Orleans area attended the conference so that we could explore some of the best practices Minneapolis has used to develop their city. The turnout for that workshop demonstrates local leaders’ commitment to look beyond our own resources, identify the best practices from outside the area, and put those strategies to work. Conference attendees included the president of Louisiana Operations at Bell South, a state senator from the Louisiana legislature, the vice chancellor of University of New Orleans, the head of a well-respected private school in the area, the vice president of the Times-Picayune newspaper, the executive director of one of New Orleans’ neighborhood development groups, and a local mayor.
Together, we learned about initiatives needed to grow the city regionally. The most critical priority is to bring up the quality of education in elementary schools, middle schools, and higher education. Improving the quality of our work force is going to be a critical goal for the future as well. Communities across the country are integrating technology into their economy in many creative ways. For example, New Orleans will be focusing on biotechnology. There’s a real opportunity here for us to grow in that area. And by going to Minneapolis, I realized that we’re much further ahead in that area than I had imagined.
We chose Minneapolis primarily because it has done some very unusual things in regional governance and regional planning. That was the primary focus of our trip, because currently our nine-parish region in New Orleans is concentrating on land use issues and infrastructure planning. This conference gave us an opportunity to meet with and hear presentations from business and political leaders in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. The main purpose of the conference was to expose New Orleans’ leaders to activities in another community, and get them to think outside the box. We learned about Minneapolis’ efforts to expand its airport and is biomedical industry, which has had an impact on economic development. We want to raise the bar in New Orleans as it relates to biomedical technology because we have tremendous local opportunities with the medical schools at Louisiana State University and Tulane University.
The Internet Coalition is monitoring the initiatives of other cities and communities as well. We cannot survive in a vacuum, and other communities are working on some wonderful projects to enhance their technology and Internet agendas. Virginia, in particular, has been very successful. The state has created a technology commission under the auspices of Governor Gilmore that brings together various facets of the technology community to create a single agenda. Early this year, Virginia wrote and enacted a body of integrated, cohesive laws that replaced a hodgepodge of laws passed by legislators who don’t know exactly what they are approving.
There may be 50 or 60 science and math high schools in the United States, and all but one or two are not open to everyone who applies. The New Orleans Center for Science and Math was the brainchild of two scientists from Tulane and a mathematician from Southern University in New Orleans. So far, the school has opened its doors very wide, believing all students can excel at math and sciences if they are allowed to experience the wonder of those subjects in a hands-on environment. Obviously some math has to be taught verbally, but students start out conducting experiments in order to understand Newton’s Laws. They don’t sit through hour-long lectures. We put them to work to see how a body at rest tends to remain at rest. We encourage them to use math as the language of science, rather than a separate entity. Kids from disparate academic backgrounds are doing just fine. Maybe they don’t have a top score on state-standardized tests, but they’re excited to come to school every day, and the enthusiasm gained from learning in this environment helps them persist when learning gets difficult.
This year, we enrolled 391 students who come from every neighborhood in the city. Ninety-five percent of them are African-American, and 65 percent are female. Remarkably, we’re the only science and math school in he country with that kind of statistic. A majority of our kids come from single-parent families, and we usually get tremendous parental support from all levels. We offer homework assistance before and after school, because students here do have to put in a lot of time and persevere. This is our seventh academic year. In the first three years, we only had about a 50 percent graduation rate. This year, 70 percent of our students will make it.
New Orleans is an old-fashioned, Old World city that is changing its economic structure. Designed to lead a shift to cutting-edge innovation, the Navy Information Technology Center is positioned as an anchor and focal point of the new economy. The Center has given us an opportunity to make information- and technology-related businesses a more important part of our economy so that we can really lead that restructuring effort into the future as more oil and gas jobs disappear from the area. But the jury is not out. Because The Center is a federal government project, its progress is subject to vulnerability and delays: Government officials change their minds, alter projects and move people all the time. But as the 21st Century dawns, the economy is in the process of being re-shaped by the information technology through this Navy Center.
Tulane’s technology transfer and licensing activities represent a great success story for New Orleans. A decade ago, the university wasn’t recognized as a national leader because it didn’t have a strong academic tradition. But the university has since been ranked in the top ten or 12 universities nationwide for licensing revenues. Tulane’s performance is substantially above standards, especially when you consider that it emerged from an environment of widespread skepticism. The university is a solid example of what happens when you get really good, capable people, supportive management, and strong technological capabilities together in an organization.
From a purely business standpoint, the New Orleans Technology Council is encouraging and supporting a number of interesting, young startups and early-stage businesses that serve as models for the future of New Orleans. In addition, Louisiana has attracted a great deal of venture capital in the last six or seven years, and much of that money is centered in New Orleans.
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