When Eric Parker moved from California back to his hometown of Augusta, Ga., five years ago, he decided to take a year off from his architecture business to meditate on his future. What did he do with his newfound free time? He road his bike. Over the course of a year, he lost 20 pounds and gained an idea.
Along the bike paths of Augusta, Parker noticed the historic yet decaying infrastructure around him. He saw an opportunity for re-birth, and, as an architect who specialized in creating creative spaces, the wheels on his bike stopped and the wheels in his head went full-steam ahead.
In conjunction with community development specialist, Grace Belangia, Augusta’s “Clubhouse” co-working space was born. A community-first effort, the Clubhouse brings together like-minded, excited techies to collaborate, create and innovate. From the onset, the doors were opened to anyone who promised to uphold five core values: risk boldly, be worthy of trust, give more than take, share solutions and honor the community.
As Parker and Belangia explained during their lecture entitled “Economic Innovation Architecture” during the second day of the DIG South Conference in the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant, they have set out to “re-invent Augusta” and spur economic change in a city they see as having great potential. The result has been a $5 million economic impact in the Greater Augusta area.
How? By simply gathering intrinsically motivated, talented people, the culture of The Clubhouse has expanded into auxiliary efforts such as HACKAugusta, which hosts hack-a-thons. These “white hat” hackers participate in initiatives such as the National Day of Civic Hacking, when Augusta’s governmental departments open up their code to allow hackers to move out the virtual “furniture,” then re-arrange it to increase efficiency. Hack-a-thons have since swept across Georgia to Dawsonville, Athens and Columbus, as well as Knoxville, Tennessee.
The Greater Augusta Innovation Academy gives middle and high school students access to mentors and resources in 3-d printing and robotics. With Augusta becoming a recent hub for military security and intelligence, one-third of its members are military veterans. This diversity, but unity in mission, has led to an energy producing, among other benefits, job opportunities and entrepreneurship.
Clubhouse takes a grassroots approach that tends to permeate its culture. In a local stunt, aspiring small business owners literally took to the streets, specifically Augusta’s flagging 800 block, to practice delivering business pitches on the sidewalk.
These revitalizing efforts and their success, not just in Augusta but across the Southeast and other major hubs like New York, Austin and San Francisco raise an interesting question - is the private sector doing the public sector’s job? While the Clubhouse and others like it often rely on government grants, they are exponentially fulfilling a void of technology, robotics and entrepreneurship that aren’t being satisfied as efficiently elsewhere.
While Grace and Eric speculate that the problem arises from the very nature of universities as “institutions built to resist change,” they also insist that this is not a matter of competition, but rather an opportunity to partner, citing the recent partnership between Atlanta’s Advanced Technology Development Center and Georgia Tech.
In fact, partnering is Eric’s overarching goal - to create a network of nodes across the Southeast to create an undeniable economic force for the betterment of communities and those who lives there.