Treating Communities as Startups

Cartoon rendering of images from small towns across Texas

From Roadmap to Impact:

The IC2 Institute’s Regional XLR8 program for Texas communities finished its first cohort December 1st with communities presenting the summation of their two months of work – their community development roadmaps – to peers for discussion. Communities described creative and impactful strategies, including:

  • Opening “big opportunity” in the “big empty” around Spur;
  • Building a community food and beverage incubator in Gatesville;
  • Implementing an innovative new housing initiative in Sweetwater;
  • Launching a downtown destination project in Rio Hondo;
  • Enhancing broadband access in both Cuero and Smithville;
  • Forming a merchant association formation for Mainstreet recognition in Jacksboro;
  • Accelerating a revitalization initiative by engaging local business in Borger;
  • Designing creative spaces linked with commercial and residential access in downtown Donaldsonville, LA; and
  • Many other exciting initiatives.

What Participants Said About Regional XLR8:

“Classes provided a new and different kind of framework to conceptualize the issues and put together a roadmap that could work to get from here to a realistic objective. I also sincerely appreciated all the enthusiasm from the instructors and staff. It was a terrifically positive and upbeat atmosphere to discuss the issues that can be so challenging and frustrating.”

“The most important benefit, as it turned out, was seeing how other communities (some peers, some larger than us) thought of themselves and addressed their own planning and visioning processes. Also important were the insights we gained from guided self-evaluation.”

So, How Did Regional XLR8 Get Started?

The world was a strange place in 1967. It may have been the Summer of Love in San Francisco, but conflict raged in Vietnam, in Israel and on the streets of the U.S. as the fight for racial justice continued. In the midst of this chaos, the world’s first satellite broadcast, Our World, occurred. Bookended by the “serious art” of Pablo Picasso, Van Cliburn and Zeffirelli – the camera cut to Abbey Road studios where the Beatles were surprised to get the green light 40 seconds early. With a flourish of helium balloons and orchestral musicians, the Fab Four introduced the world to “All You Need Is Love” as fans huddled in the small studio[1].  The juxtaposition of “love” in the midst of strife was not lost on a worldwide audience of 350 million.

Similarly, in the middle of a pandemic that has seen over 22,400 Texans die, 2 million jobs lost and $4.6B in lost revenue, 150 economic development leaders across the State of Texas met each Tuesday for six weeks to accelerate their economic growth. The 58 communities were introduced to start-up principles through the lens of one of the most innovate bands The Beatles. The Fab Four provide an example of how innovation, joy and world-wide change can issue from unexpected places. For the participating leaders, the goal of the program was not a business plan or pitch, but a community development roadmap leading to a new and growth-oriented economic future.

Cities from as large as Austin and Amarillo to as small as Spur and Wheeler partnered together in the Regional XLR8 program. During the program, leaders shared stories, detailed challenges they faced, described collaboration strategies that are working and developed growth plans for their communities. Further, they spent hours each week working through exercises to produce an economic development roadmap detailing a goal, plan and co-creation strategy to be shared with their fellow residents. In other words, the leaders were working much like a group of startups developing new innovative products.

What are the Origins of This Program?

Over 40 years ago The IC2 Institute at The University of Texas, Austin, TX, helped set Austin on a winding path that has seen Austin go from a modest, weird place in the middle of Texas to a leading hub of innovation, entrepreneurship and business in the U.S.  While many people think that Austin miraculously morphed overnight into a creative hub, the truth is a little more complicated. Austin actually faced a lot of the challenges that our smaller cities are facing today. A rather modest college town that saw its young people leave for economic opportunity elsewhere. Austin struggled for years to bring the three pillars of the city government, higher education, and industry together to create a viable economic future. We weathered two economic recessions, vacant offices, and no shopping on South Congress for decades.

On September 27, 1971, Austin’s future would be forever changed when Dr. George Kozmetsky cast his vision, “Austin could be a technology center built on science and technology through engagement of The University of Texas, attraction and nurturing of entrepreneurial businesses, advancement of local funding access, and building on its appealing quality of life.” In 1977 Kozmetsky put his theory of economic development into action by creating the IC2 Institute. Dubbed a “think-and-do tank”, the Institute combined science and technology with entrepreneurship and business education to identify pathways for regional economic growth.

The work started in Austin, building collaborations and finding ways to move Kozmetsky’s vision into reality. Through IC2, UT played a key role in catalyzing, studying and telling the “Austin Story” from inception to today. The Institute took its learnings from Austin and helped other cities across the United States and in more than 40 countries catalyze economic growth through innovation and entrepreneurship.

During this journey, IC2 improved tools helping new businesses grow, the first being business incubation. In 1984-85, IC2 held two national conferences asking the questions of national experts:

  • Why are current business incubators not effective?
  • How can a business incubator best help a new, innovative company?

From this time, IC2 learned that incubators are not about space, services or even lab equipment. For success, incubators must increase the proximity of new business founders with mentors, capital providers and market. The Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) was founded in 1989 under the leadership of Laura Kilcrease to provide this proximity to startups. It is now the longest, continually operating university business incubator in the US. Startups graduating from ATI have produced over $3B in economic impact in the Central Texas region.

Since ATI’s founding, new processes have been added between steps of “innovation” and incubation – specifically acceleration. Accelerators offer key proximity advantages for early stage innovators to determine “if” there is a market for their idea and what form the idea must be molded in order to entice the market to “buy.” In Austin, the Capital Factory, TechStars, and other accelerators have helped establish Austin as one of the premier cities to start and grow a company. Companies graduating from accelerator programs often join incubators to help them develop a final product form, launch products into the marketplace and secure later stage financing.

Acceleration for Communities:

So, what does this have to do with cities and communities? As the IC2 Institute considered the challenges Texas communities faced in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, we began to see the value proximity offers community leaders to encourage, collaborate and grow as a group – rather than as independent actors. We took the accelerator model and adapted it for communities – treating communities as startups and community leaders as the founders. Regional XLR8 offered:

  • Peer-to-peer learning – through regional breakout sessions, offline networking and sharing best practices;
  • Weekly community discovery activities, where leaders engaged with residents through interviews, social media outreach and other methods to gather opinions, feedback and insight;
  • An action-focused, outcome-oriented curriculum purposed to produce a roadmap to overcome a current challenge and realize a broader community vision; 
  • Lean methodology encouraging leaders to think, test, iterate a plan based on community discovery findings;
  • An environment stimulating growth mindedness so that leaders can envision a future and view all plans as mold-able and all actions as collaborative; and
  • A co-creative process to fit and refine a roadmap through feedback to gain community support.

Each of these approaches mirror the customer-driven processes taken by startup founders to transform an idea into a new product concept during the acceleration process.

Regional XLR8 Participants

Well, did it work? As noted, we finished the program with communities presenting final roadmaps for implementation. We look forward to tracking the changes over the next few months. Here’s what I learned from the experience:

  • 94% percent said their experiences met or exceeded their expectations;  
  • 86% percent would recommend the classes to colleagues or acquaintances; 
  • Over 90% of the respondents said the content was new and appropriate; and      
  • Nearly 90% said they would use course information in their current position and organization.

Here are a few things the participants had to say:

“I really liked the small breakout rooms and being able to listen to the stories from other communities regarding similar economic development issues they are facing and how they have been able to overcome it.”

“Most economic development organizations know what their community assets are but they don’t focus on how to expand these assets and who can help them. The course helped us focus on who might be able to add insight or financial resources to help solve the challenges every community faces.”

“Put our vision on paper and went deep into the assets, challenges, and plan to move our vision forward. Also look to the community for more buy in instead of a select handful. In speaking with the community members, they realized that there are steps being taken behind the scenes to move our community forward.”

The economic acceleration in communities across Texas will be the ultimate measure of the success of the program and we will be following the implementation of community roadmaps in the coming months by the communities. In the meantime, the feedback provided by participants shows that treating communities as startups can be a new and effective way to practice economic development.

It has been a challenging year. Indeed, we may face a cold winter and new challenges in 2021. But with a new network of dedicated economic development leaders across the state, each having a fitted plan for their communities, I must say – I can see new opportunity for Texas’ cities rising.

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting

Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear

Here comes the sun, do, dun, do, do

Here comes the sun, and I say

It’s all right



Posted on

December 8, 2020

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