Duluth—no news isn’t necessarily bad news


Duluth has been getting lot of attention from their Google bid. As you may recall, Google was looking for partners for community wide, serious broadband (think gig!). Duluth jumped in the lake, they resolved to name their kids Google and Googlette – and they got serious.

Well Google just announced that they are starting with Kansas City – but that’s not necessarily the end of the story, as the video from Google indicates. My hopes still remain high for Duluth!

Maybe Google will put them on an express way to broadband – it seems that the idea of Google has put them on the right path regardless.

One of the players helping to build and sustain the buzz in Duluth is emerging entrepreneur Ben Damman. Originally I met Ben at the Minnesota Voices Online Unconference in April 2009. I’ve been hearing his buzz ever since. We met up a couple of weeks ago to talk about what’s happening in Duluth. And how or why it’s happening. I thought his advice and observations would be helpful to other communities.

The Google Twin Ports opportunity was a turning point of sorts for the Duluth Community. The community had some strong assets (Folks attending the 2009 Blandin Broadband Conference got a nice tour of Duluth’s assets, such as the Teatro Zuccone.) but the Google opportunity spurred collaboration throughout the community. As Ben put it, it has brought together the old and new guard. Fiber would be great – but I think the process of collaboration seems to have created another infrastructure in Duluth that is also valuable.

So how did Duluth/Twin Ports get on the ball?

It sounds like once Google made the announcement, there were a couple of people in the area who jumped on it. They posted their interest and ideas online – where others could see and sure enough like minds were brought together. The Google brand was powerful. In getting interest from established folks such as APEX, a business development organization and emerged entrepreneurs such as Ben. The Mayor of Duluth, Don Ness has also been instrumental in the cause. (As you may recall, he was the one who jumped in the lake to show his commitment.)

That brought a nice diversity of folks to the table. They had an immediate goal in mind – get Google’s 1 Gbps fiber optic network to Duluth-Superior. (Those are two key ingredients: cross section of community involved and clear goal.) It sounds like there was a two-pronged approach. In the background a team of consultants began gathering data for the detailed application. They mapped assets, opportunities, dark fiber and demographics to appeal to Google’s technology and business sensibilities. Out front was a group that gathered and promoted community support in a way that would appeal to Duluth creative side – and in a way that would garner national attention.

Ben explains that communication and transparency were key in moving everyone forward. Everyone involved was aware of the goal. (Two more key ingredients – transparency and communication.) Everyone had unique talents to bring to the table – and while these were people who didn’t necessarily know each other well enough to have built a high level of trust – they took distributive responsibility. People watched out for each other, they kept each other honest – they stayed focused and they didn’t have time for group dynamics that can often bring down group efforts.

Social media helped too. (Another ingredient – social media.) It brought people together at the onset, it provided a centralized platform for communications and organization. It provided for fast, cheap interaction to larger groups. It mobilized the masses to the tune of 800 attendees at Google Fest – a pep rally held locally.

So there you have it – some of the magic beans for driving a community broadband effort: get diverse group involved, make the goal clear, communication, transparency and social media to mobilize. It seems that these ingredients have served Duluth well. Aside from the Twin Ports Google effort, Duluth is also working on the following initiatives:

  • TEDx UMD happened March 1
  • TED Duluth is in the works for next Fall
  • Android Conference this week
  • STEM curriculum push for K12
  • New Data Storage Center (Involta)