September 9, 2013 By Robert Bell
On August 26, the godmother of New York City’s Silicon Alley passed away at the age of 88. The story of her life says everything about the mighty, nearly invisible power of culture to transform a community.
You didn’t know Silicon Alley – the city’s nickname for its high-tech cluster – had a godmother? Neither did I and I need to thank The New York Times’ Douglas Martin for bringing this milestone to a fellow New Yorker’s attention.
Mrs. Goldie Burns, known to everyone as Red for the color of her hair, was not an engineer, inventor or entrepreneur. She was not a venture capitalist or an attorney or a political leader. She was a teacher. Beginning in the early 1970s, she worked with a fellow professor at New York University to create a program called the Alternate Media Center. The students in the program came up with a lot of pioneering stuff. One example was a two-way TV system that allowed elderly residents of Reading, Pennsylvania (about 140 miles/224 km west of the city) interact with one another and with government support services.
Then personal computers came along, and Red Burns refocused her program, renaming it the Interactive Telecommunications Program or ITP. It created a refrigerator that projected a picture of a mother’s face on the back wall. When a visitor took a box of chocolates out of the refrigerator, the mother image said “Yeah, that’s just what you need! More chocolate.”
And when the dot-com era began, IPT rolled with it. A 2007 student project put sensors into the soil around plants, which signaled over a telephone line when a plant was thirsty.
Silly stuff? Maybe. But through projects like these, Ms. Burns helped ITP turn out 3,000 highly imaginative graduates. Working for Disney, Microsoft, Apple, Google and small start-ups, they now make up the core talent that drives the success of Silicon Alley. From 2007 to 2011, according to the Center for an Urban Future, almost 500 start-ups received venture financing. That accounts for a 32 percent rise in VC deals at a time when other areas – including Silicon Valley – have seen a decline in new company financing.
This is a critical change in the New York economy, which for decades has been dominated by finance and traditional media, and has suffered the severe ups-and-downs that come with being an almost-one-industry town. Much of the credit goes to Red Burns, who was not an executive, investor, lawyer or other member of the American elite but an educator. Her product was not video refrigerators or telephone-calling plants but a new culture of innovation ideally suited to the today’s intersection of computers, broadband, information and entertainment. Thanks, Red.
About the Intelligent Community Forum
The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community. Whether in industrialized or developing nations, communities are challenged to create prosperity, stability and cultural meaning in a world where jobs, investment and knowledge increasingly depend on advances in communications. For the 21st Century community, connectivity is a double-edge sword: threatening established ways of life on the one hand, and offering powerful new tools to build prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economies on the other. ICF seeks to share the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities in adapting to the demands of the Broadband Economy, in order to help communities everywhere find sustainable renewal and growth. More information can be found at www.intelligentcommunity.org.
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.
ICF co-founder John G. Jung originated the Intelligent Community concept and continues to serve as the Forum's leading visionary. Formerly President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and Calgary Economic Development Authority, he is a registered professional urban planner, urban designer and economic developer. He leads regular international business missions to US, European, Asian, Indian and Australian cities, and originated the ICF Immersion Lab program. John is a regular speaker at universities and conferences and serves as an advisor to regional and national leaders on Intelligent Community development. The author of numerous articles in planning and economic development journals, he has received global and Toronto-based awards for his work in collaboration and strategic development and sits on numerous task forces and international advisory boards.
ICF co-founder Louis Zacharilla is the creator and presenter of the annual Smart21, Top Seven and Intelligent Community Awards and oversees ICF's media communications and development programs. He is a frequent keynote and motivational speaker and panelist, addressing audiences of tech, academic and community leaders around the world, and writes extensively for publications including American City & County, Continental Airline's in-flight magazine and Municipal World. His frequent appearances in the electronic media have included both television and radio in South Korea, China and Canada. He has served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York and is a Guest Lecturer at Polytechnic University's Distinguished Speaker Series. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame.