Education Innovation Cluster Growth Requires Collaboration, Momentum, and Stamina
Several years ago, in August 2014, a few energetic, trusted people in the Baltimore EdTech ecosystem convinced me to attend the inaugural Education Innovation Clusters Convening in Pittsburgh. I did — and was inspired by the event and the belief that the work I had recently begun at Towson University via Towson University Incubator could help make a dent in the universe that is the Baltimore education innovation cluster.
The truth is that the Baltimore cluster has had its ups and downs over the last ten years, from the fragmented (2007–2010) to the prospectively centralized (2011–2014) to the now more decentralized but focused (2014–2017). Education innovation finds a way forward, but the momentum with which it is shared and replicated has different speeds and convictions, depending on who leads and leans in, what else is competing or shinier, macroeconomic and political trends, and sincere evidence of wins.
The 2017 Digital Promise Education Innovation Clusters Convening (#EdClusters17) was my second convening attendance across a four year span. This time was Kansas City and the Marion and Ewing Kauffman Foundation. The gathering was inspirational and engaging in many ways and included updates from approximately 15 clusters. The leading clusters (Boston, Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh, and Rhode Island) are doing amazing work and sharing openly via Digital Promise and more directly with other clusters. LearnLaunch MAPLE, LEAP Innovations, NYC iZONE, Remake Learning, and EduvateRI are organizations and efforts that have set a high bar.
In addition to the stalwarts above, great work is occurring in other U.S. metro hubs: Austin, Charlottesville, Madison, NC Research Triangle, Northern NJ, San Diego, SE Kentucky, Tucson, and our host metro — Kansas City. I also gave a brief overview to larger convening of our efforts in Baltimore, in the last few years shouldered largely by Towson University Incubator.
My spin on the cluster convening is unsurprisingly more introspective. There are attributes from other clusters that can be applied to Baltimore, however, a few high level questions arise.
- What are the key elements required to make things work in Baltimore?
- How might we enlist a broad spectrum of stakeholders in the evolution?
- Should Baltimore become more centralized and, if so, is this best done through an existing entity or one with fresh legs?
From my 2017 participation and from the video and image supports below, I find some clarity. Spend two minutes with Cricket Fuller (Digital Promise), Dana Borelli-Murray (Highlander Institute, Rhode Island), Malliron Hodge (4.0 Schools, New Orleans), Sunanna Chand (Remake Learning, Pittsburgh) and Josh Schachter (CommunityShare, Tucson) as they explain what it takes to build an education innovation cluster.
So what about Baltimore, Charm City, the City that Reads, the Birthplace of the Star Bangled Banner? Is there a supportive infrastructure in Baltimore for a harbormaster to engage stakeholders and curate a shared vision? Maybe — but not yet implemented. Is there a defined pilot process for emerging innovation within K-12 or postsecondary? Nope. Is there dedicated capital for these endeavors or for entrepreneurs and enterprises to test innovative solutions? Nope. So, to borrow a 1980s meme, where’s the beef?
In Baltimore, we have unique cluster attributes and those quite similar to the urban condition across evolving ‘rust belt’ cities. Come on back for a follow-on post where I drill into more granular possibilities for the Baltimore education innovation cluster. If you’d like to witness education innovation, you must get out of the building, as they highlight in lean startup methodology. A near term answer to where’s the beef in Baltimore is not only evidenced but is brought to a sizzle in this week’s October 19 EdTech Innovation Showcase, held at Towson University’s Minnegan Room adjacent to Johnny Unitas Stadium.
In closing out my reflection of #EdClusters17, I must end with a metaphor. At the end of the 2.5 day convening and with a couple of hours to spare before heading to outbound planes, a half dozen or so attendees walked to the nearby Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Just outside the museum is the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park where we came upon the perfect cluster build metaphor. In the long undulating journey that is cluster work, one must have fun along the way and be ever mindful of twists and turns that appear transparent but might otherwise be with impediment. Sincere thanks to Digital Promise and the Kauffman Foundation for hosting a wonderful convening with greatness of people, passion, and purpose.
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I am an edupreneur, edtech investor, and teacher-coach in Baltimore, MD. As the Director of Venture Creation at Towson University and via TU Incubator, I help support Maryland’s largest cluster of edtech companies.