Macromedia Founder Creating “Digital City” in Ohio

Digital City Layout
The Digital City Project - Columbus, OH

Marc Canter, a founder of Macromedia and now CEO/Chairman and Founder of Broadband Mechanics, gave a very interesting presentation/pitch yesterday at the TechLife Columbus Meetup at the Chocolate Cafe near OSU.

If you don’t know Marc, he was with the MacroMind/Macromedia back when they had first developed and released Flash (or maybe it was the predecessor to Flash, I’m not 100% sure).  Multimedia is a huge interest of Marc’s, and more recently, he’s been teaching a course at Case Western Reserve University on this concept of a “Digital City”.

The presentation was a little scattered, but here’s what his vision as how I understand it:

Using a special interest of “Workforce Development”, his company, Broadband Mechanics, is developing and deploying an open source social network software platform called “People Aggregator”.  This software allows blogging, social networking, live video chat, and all the other usual social-media stuff.  It is developed to OpenSocial specifications, so that it can be integrated with other open social media platforms (Facebook, Google, etc.).  Now, at this point in the presentation, I was starting to think “so what?”

But here’s what is very interesting about this, and what makes this is unique business.  Marc realized that there are a few needs that are unfulfilled in the market today:

There are many people who need computer skills in order to land new jobs, but they don’t have them.  And we’re talking about basic stuff here…  How to use a web browser, how to log into a web site, how to check their e-mail, how to use a form on a web page, etc.  Why not create a platform to help them learn?  But how can you get them involved and step them through the learning process without them even realizing it?  How about using a social networking platform as the learning tool?

  1. Social networking needs to be relevant.  And, for techno-challenged people, it has to be relevant for them in order for them to use it.  If you make it hyper-relevant to a local community, with all that community’s info and residents at that person’s fingertips, it’s more likely that they will use the system.  Now, if you also facilitate off-line activities and volunteerism, so that the online system becomes a resource rather than just an internet destination, you can make it even more relevant to that person’s life.
  2. If you have 1-on-1 interactions throughout the entire process, you can remove the barriers that are keeping techno-challenged from using the computer, and you can remove them one-at-a-time in manageable chunks.
  3. Once people get familiar with the computer, they can then learn other skills.  This business will have a mix of paid staff and volunteers with a wide range of experience, and they will offer their time as mentors to the newbies.  (Marc calls this “The Haves helping the Have-Nots.”)

It’s actually a great idea, but about halfway through I felt that Marc lost the path and started talking about all the wild multimedia education concepts and what is wrong with Wikipedia.  But we did get back to the point and talked about more right-here-right-now barriers to this business model.  My number 1 question to Marc was about the initial push to get people on the system, and the resources involved in supporting those people.  Here’s why this is such an important issue:

Workforce Development is not a sexy topic for most people.  And the individuals that you are developing this entire system for are the ones who are the most resistant to learning and the most easily discouraged.  Personally, I don’t think that these people are going to come to People Aggregator for the sake of being early adopters.  These people are the late-if-ever adopters.  Marketing a tech service to them is going to be VERY difficult.  However, if you get endorsement by the local government, educational institutions, libraries, etc., and you have a physical location that is recommended as the #1 place to go for new computer users for easy, fun, free or very-low-cost training, you might be able to get some people started.  Now, to keep those people entertained and educate them, you will have to have a sufficient staff of people with good soft skills and lots of patience.  To grow the community, you then need to scale your staff to teach more people how to turn on their computers, log in, and get started.  You also need to handle the support requests from new users.

Here was Marc’s answer (it’s not verbatim, but distilled from his answer and the presentation):

His company will set up “Digital Bureaus” in each area, which will provide staff for the in-person support and video help.  Also, the users can help each other out, and once a user has become comfortable enough with the system and gained a good reputation with the managers, he can then give back to the community and volunteer his or her time on video help.

I’m not exactly sure what to think.  On one hand, there does appear to be a largely untapped market in Workforce Development, and there are lots of people that need computer training.  Also, the 55+ age group is the fastest-growing population of facebook users (and presumably social networks in general).  On the other hand, I would image that these people are the hardest to convert, and they’re not going to learn to use a computer unless they either are forced to (such as mandatory training due to unemployment), or they decide to on their own.  The entire business model is focused on being there at the right time, with the right community and staff.

But, above all, any service must be relevant and meaningful to it’s users, and I’m not so sure that this community will define itself quickly enough to be viable.  You need that initial seed, either through early adopters or an active group of experienced volunteers and staff.

Admittedly, I was very skeptical last night while Marc was talking, but the more I think about it, the more I think that it just might work.  It’s not KISS (keep it stupid-simple), because there are just too many pieces to this jigsaw puzzle, but with proper funding, good planning and government endorsement (or at least well-refined marketing), Marc might be able to pull it off.  If Video Professor can do so well for itself teaching basic computer skills, there should be plenty of room to do the same thing using person-to-person interaction.

With a little planning and structure, and a flexible, scalable business model, People Aggregator just might pull it off.  Kudos to Marc Canter for thinking big, yet again!

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