Growing a Sustainable Technology Landscape

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Ronna-Renee Jackson

This story was originally published in the February/March 2015 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.

“If you build it, they will come.” –Latin saying

Long before the moniker “Gig City” scored Chattanooga headlines in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, world-class technology found its way to this mid-sized Southern city through initiatives like UTC’s SimCenter, developing cutting-edge computer simulation and modeling.

The Enterprise Center joined the charge, researching the feasibility of a high-speed train between Atlanta and Chattanooga, and innovative private enterprises like wind turbine manufacturer Aerisyn, Inc. chose Chattanooga as their base of operations.

These public-private ventures and many others seeded Chattanooga’s emerging technology ecosystem, helping the “Dynamo of Dixie” move beyond its storied past with foundries and manufacturing plants filling the air with pollution. With a revitalized 21st Century Waterfront and downtown footprint providing new infrastructure for quality of life in Chattanooga, “technology innovation” quickly became the new buzzword for revitalizing the city’s economy, offering a cleaner, more sustainable future.

The region stretching along Interstate 75 between Chattanooga’s expanding technology scene and the Oak Ridge Laboratory near Knoxville soon received the distinction as the “Tennessee Valley Technology Corridor” setting the stage for the greater Chattanooga region to join the national and international ranks.

Building the Foundation for Chattanooga as a Technology Hub
With the first wave of Chattanooga’s new innovation economy in the early 2000s, the Chattanooga Technology Council was created to connect the city’s growing technology community and strengthen and promote Chattanooga’s presence as a technology hub.

Through lunch and learn events, networking opportunities, and educational seminars, the Chattanooga Technology Council connected technology innovators from across industries from manufacturing and computer technology to healthcare and business development.

In 2006, Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Michael A. Weber signaled “the cusp of a technological revival which will change Chattanooga and the surrounding area.”

Leaders of the Chattanooga Technology Council, at that time, shared similar thoughts with Weber acknowledging that “the image of Chattanooga filled with smokestacks, foundries and pollution is fading as the city develops as a hub of technological innovation.”

Since those early days of Chattanooga’s technology boom, some companies have come and gone while others have reinvented themselves, but the Chattanooga Technology Council has been there as a steady partner to the city’s burgeoning technology community.

Retooling for Chattanooga’s Technology Boom
The real boon for Chattanooga’s emerging role as a technology hub came in 2008 when the Electric Power Board (EPB) began construction of their newly developed Smart Grid electric system to reduce power outages and better manage power usage. With the Smart Grid and EPB’s one-gigabit-per-second high-speed fiber network made possible by a $111 million federal stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Chattanooga had the infrastructure in place to offer the nation’s fastest Internet, hence “Gig City,” and the rest is history.

As the city’s “off-the-charts” high-speed Internet put Chattanooga in national and international headlines, tech startups and entrepreneurs quickly followed. And the city’s technology scene expanded to include a wide spectrum of public-private ventures from the staid institutions to a new slate of startups and small businesses.

Having worked with IBM and UnumProvident, Chattanooga Technology Council Executive Director Ronna-Renee Jackson first came on board as a consultant to help the council develop a big vision for its role in the city’s next wave of technology innovation.

Growing a Sustainable Technology Landscape
In the past, the Chattanooga Technology Council focused its efforts more on the “vertical” silos of the technology community—lunch and learn and networking events focused more on topics like “Technology in Manufacturing” or “Technology in Healthcare,” for instance.

Now, Jackson says the council is focused more on the universal “horizontal” dialogue about issues and solutions that translate across industries—from “Cyber Security” and “Trends in Technology” to “Developing a Strategic Plan” and “Doing More with Less Budget.”

When Jackson had the opportunity to stay on as Executive Director she jumped at the chance to build on the council’s rich history of connecting the city’s technology community. Jackson’s goal is to strengthen the council’s role in growing a sustainable technology landscape, as she puts it.

“Since I’ve been here, our membership strategy has become more focused on promoting Chattanooga as a tech hub and building our local workforce,” Jackson says. “We want to grow the overall tech landscape here in Chattanooga, and we also want to bridge the generation gap from the tech entrepreneurs to the staid audiences, we’re doing this through informal Tech Talks events. We’re also working on the gender gap through our Women In Technology program.”

As the Chattanooga Technology Council focuses its mission on developing the city’s role as a tech hub and building its local workforce, Jackson and her team are working toward a sustainable scholarship program for students entering technology programs at local colleges and universities.

“We were able to offer two scholarships last year,” Jackson shares. “We want a workforce that trains here, and stays here. We want to stop the brain drain, and we feel that ultimately Chattanooga’s quality of life wins out.”

Through a creative effort to seed their Chattanooga Technology Council scholarship fund, the council holds a “CIO Auction” once a year. Jackson says the novelty is that they auction off highly-coveted consultation time with the Chattanooga’s top “Chief Information Officers.” Last year’s event raised close to $9,000 to assist two students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).

Upon receiving the scholarship, Jackson Stone, a junior at UTC, shared in a thank you letter to the Chattanooga Technology Council:

“I just wanted to say thank you for the scholarship contribution. Differential tuition is in full swing, (charging individuals majoring in the engineering department more per course they take), and college prices are at an all-time high, so anything and everything helps keep my finances above sea-level. Stuff like this genuinely helps me focus on studying and perfecting my trade of computer science rather than being concerned with planning day to day budgeting and work hours all the time. It gives me wiggle room, and helps me give more time for independent study.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
—Jackson Stone

As she helped establish the Southeast Tennessee STEM Initiative, Jackson now finds great pleasure in continuing to support the education of Chattanooga’s technology workforce through the Chattanooga Technology Council scholarship fund.

Next Steps Into Chattanooga’s Technology Frontier
President Obama recently gave a public nod to Chattanooga as a national model for high-speed Internet access, adding to the growing list of “Gig City” accolades. As Chattanooga continues to hone its position as a mid-sized Southern city leading the charge in high-speed Internet technology and other innovations, this is a moment for the city to broaden the dialogue on the bigger picture and next steps.

As the Chattanooga Technology Council revitalizes its mission, Jackson sees the council playing a vital role in facilitating that dialogue across industries and across the community—and she sees a convergence of old and new, public and private ventures, working together to shape the city’s technology landscape.

Visit chatechnologycouncil.org for more information.

Photography courtesy of Chattanooga Technology Council

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Writer Melissa Turner is actively involved in community development and the city of Chattanooga.

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