Northwest Arkansas must make “transformative” changes in order to keep up with a changing digital economy in the decades ahead, said Rick Webb, recently named president of the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council. He spoke at the group’s regular monthly meeting Feb. 22 at the Exchange co-working space in Bentonville.
The internet is becoming as ubiquitous as electricity, and technology is increasingly pervasive in daily life – in homes, cars, offices, public spaces and on individuals’ bodies through wearable, insertable and ingestible technology. “Those are well on their way to becoming common,” Webb said, referring to microchips that are inserted in the body, for instance, under the skin, or swallowed in a pill.
Webb is founder and owner of Grit Studios in Bentonville. The company helps startups accelerate, and it also works to bring in enterprises from elsewhere to the area. Webb conducts meetings in tech hubs across the U.S., where he observes tech advances being made and is concerned a lack of cutting-edge innovation in Northwest Arkansas could keep it from competing in the future.
The solution, he said, is more emphasis key technologies, identified as important for the future. A few sectors he set forth for potential areas of expansion included blockchain and cryptocurrency, smart cities and IoT (internet of things), AR/VR (augmented and virtual reality) and cybersecurity.
“The technology growth that we’re going to see in smart cities, in healthcare, in education – that is going to advance faster than we can even imagine,” Webb said. “It’s coming at us, and I think it’s going to blow us away.”
Reading from 1776’s Innovation that Matters 2017 white paper, Webb said: “In addition to reshaping the world around us, this digital revolution has the potential to make winners of some cities and leave others behind. The cities that embrace and capitalize on the shift to a digital economy by supporting technology startups and innovation will reap the rewards of economic vibrancy and an improved quality of life. Those cities that don’t lean in and adapt may find themselves on the outside looking in.”
“That’s what I worry about in this area,” Webb said.
The white paper, published October 2017, provides data-driven information on cities deemed as succeeding in terms of entrepreneurialism. It looks at metrics including culture – from regulatory barriers to quality of life, and also density of startups, availability of highly skilled and specialized labor, industrial diversity and connectivity between cities and large enterprises to startups.
“We don’t score very high on that right now. We have some areas where we’re pretty good, and we have some areas that we just stink at,” Webb said.
While Webb said his attitude tends to be “hyperbolic” and tilts toward “shaking things up,” he believes the NWA region will not do well if it only continues to incrementally grow.
“We need some disruptive changes in what we’re about, and we need to attract more people to the community that are high-tech – both enterprise companies and the startups that would follow them.”
The NWA Tech Council, Webb said, is tasked with determining what it would take to do that, including holding discussions regarding what leading technologies should be brought to the forefront during the council’s signature event, the annual Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit, set for Oct. 22-23 this year and chaired by Kelly Robason, Walmart sales lead for Intel Corp. in Fayetteville.
In terms of high-tech talent, companies are not finding what they need locally, Webb said. “As a result, startups and enterprise businesses alike aren’t able to grow fast enough.
“Think about who we’re competing with out there,” he said. “Even though we’re growing, we’re not growing fast enough. Our base was lower to begin with. If you believe the white paper, it’s saying the kids we’re going to lose to other communities if we don’t find a way to attract younger talent and keep them here.”
Homegrown labor represents one opportunity for improvement, said Becca Shaddox, director of STEM at Walmart Tech. She commented from the audience at the council meeting. In her role at Walmart, Shaddox is tasked with “identifying and enabling the next generation of Walmart STEM talent,” according to a LinkedIn page. Though her work, she sees “a huge, diverse population that we aren’t tapping into,” she said.
“They’re not considering staying in NWA for employment.”
Rural school districts, specifically, show room for improvement in the tech education and recruitment realm, Shaddox said, and Webb agreed. Webb said he’s seen a trend in focus on non-tech trades in smaller school districts, and he believes there’s room for expansion to include more tech training, which leads to higher-paying jobs.
“We can’t afford as a state to not provide tech improving jobs and exposure to everyone. That’s the economy we’re trying to raise,” he said.
Education is key, and so is moving beyond “the retail and transportation bubble” of NWA, council members said.
For attracting new talent from elsewhere, one key is rebranding, Webb said. Outside of Arkansas, the region is known for Walmart and not technology. One important step, in Webb’s view, is to wean the region off dependency on the area’s Fortune 500 companies.
Webb sees many startups whose aim is to try to build things Walmart might buy. “It’s great if they buy it, but it’s stymying if they don’t. We can be more than that,” he said. A focus on smart cities, for example, in addition to the innate benefits within the cities, holds potential for the creation of a cottage industry in the area of software and hardware developers, said Webb.
He pointed to the convenience of smart city elements – where sensors were used as tools within infrastructure – in other cities, including a parking slot notification at an airport in San Diego, which let Webb know while he was en route which space was available and let him pay for it ahead of time from his phone. In Hoboken, N.J., the city installed smart trashcans that used machine learning to know how quickly they filled, allowing the city to optimize trash collections and reduce the number of miles traveled by trash trucks on unnecessary trips.
“They saved a ton of the money,” Webb said, adding an individual who has done work internationally in this realm is looking at NWA as a potential candidate for a “smart region.”
“We have experts that are interested in coming to our community,” Webb said. “I’ve personally been trying to connect the outside world back here, and I haven’t had anyone not be interested yet – regardless of where they are in the world – in wanting to plug into the community here. They don’t want to miss anything. … They see the potential, maybe more so than we do.”
Webb pointed to AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality) as another area with potential, as it will become increasingly influential in daily life in the next few years.
“Where do we fit into that? How could our community better plug into that community? What types of startups or enterprise companies do we need to attract?” Webb said. “We can be a part of that. We should be a part of that here.”
From the audience, Andy Martin, founder of Moonlight Games in Bentonville spoke up.
“I think all the focus on AR/VR is kind of trying to run before we can walk,” Martin said.
As a local video game developer, he noted the link between AR/VR and his industry, and he said gaming – projected by the market analyst firm DigiCaptial to bring in $170 billion globally this year – does not get due attention in the region.
Webb spoke to the implications of gamification within a broad range of industries, and he asked the audience what it would take to building out the gaming community in NWA.
“That’s part of what this conversation is all about,” said Debbie Griffin, chief operating officer for the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, which assembled the NWA Tech Council. “We’ve got the people in the room to do that, along with the Chamber of Commerce, which is trying to develop the economy in this area.”