There is a really interesting principle in physics called “critical mass.” The original scientific definition is about the smallest mass of a fissionable material that will sustain a nuclear chain reaction, but the commonly used definition is about the necessary amount of “something” coming together sufficiently enough to have a significant effect or to achieve a result.
Well, what’s happening in various places and various “somethings” in South Carolina today is a combination of the two – in short, some good things are coming together and big things are going to happen.
Let me offer a few seemingly random observations, experiences and events from my recent travels around the state with the Envision SC project.
First, the Envision South Carolina project itself. About a year ago, a simple column in this space asked, what does our state need to do to become “world class and globally connected?” College of Charleston President George Benson saw it and got excited, and the result has been a really interesting project that involves asking people all over the state to offer their ideas and suggestions. From our state’s “best and brightest” to the man on the street, there have been some great ideas generated.
And part of what makes Envision SC so special is that so many different groups have all worked together to make it happen. The College of Charleston was the original sponsor; the Palmetto Project has incubated the project; the S.C. Chamber of Commerce has promoted it to businesses; S.C. Future Minds and SCETV have helped us connect with students; and four television stations and 10 daily papers and other media companies have helped promote the ideas and interviews. It’s a new way to use media and new technology to engage people around new ideas.
Second, Dig South. The inaugural Dig South Interactive Festival was held last weekend in Charleston. It was part tech exhibits, part music festival, part small business how-to seminar, part wacky people with fun and interesting ideas. Loosely modeled on the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, Dig South brought together almost 2,000 people to talk, think, dream, imagine and figure out how to make money and build new economic models for the future – and have a lot of fun in the process.
Third, One Columbia: CityServe. Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia has made “One Columbia” the theme of his term as mayor. It’s all about viewing the city as a whole, where all the parts work together in a new spirit, where diversity and unity within the community is fostered and prized. His latest One Columbia project is CityServe, a weeklong series of events in which 200 volunteers have come together to work on more than 40 projects. Their focus is on health, city beautification, education and home improvement. It’s all about folks lending a hand to their neighbors to build the city – and they use technology in new and innovative ways to organize people, show the need and then highlight the good results of their work.
Fourth, TEDx conferences. Greenville, Columbia and now Charleston are all hosting TEDx conferences, local versions of the wildly successful TED Conference. Begun in 1984 in California, TED stands for Technology, Education and Design and their motto is “Ideas worth spreading.”
And that’s what they do – a bunch of really smart and interesting people stand up and within a strict 18 minutes or less time limit outline their ideas. Thus far they have uploaded over 1,400 talks to their website and over a billion people have watched. The local conferences use the same format with a combination of unique and interesting local folks mixed with videos or other presenters from the TED national or global conferences.
Fifth, InnoVenture, InnoVision and Tech After 5 – All three of these grew out of the fertile tech and innovation environment of the Upstate. These events are “connectors,” bringing together and connecting people who are doing great things – or are trying to do great things – with technology and new business models.
Some are new, one-person startups looking for any kind of help they can find; others are part of a special unit in a large international corporation. What brings them together are ideas and a belief in the future ... a belief that technology and innovation are the keys to success in the decades ahead.
These are just a few of the literally dozens of new, innovative groups, organizations and projects that are taking root across South Carolina. Charleston has developed its own “Silicon Harbor” collection of tech companies; USC and Clemson are sprouting their own tech incubators; the SC Research Authority is helping fund new tech-based startups; and on and on it goes all across the state.
In short, South Carolina is achieving “critical mass.”
We are not Silicon Valley in California or Genome Valley in Hyderabad, India or Silicon Glen in Scotland – we never will be and we don’t want to be.
What we will be is our own unique “something.” It will be based in part on our own history and culture, but focused on innovation, education and technology.
This is the critical mass. This is what will, and in fact is already beginning to, drive what could be a nuclear scale explosion in our beloved Palmetto State. It’s an explosion that could propel us all the way from the 19th to the 21st Century.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform to government and politics.
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