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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Local Tech CEO Proposes 'Betaland,' Wants to Make Cleveland a 'Proving Ground for Innovation'

Posted By on Tue, Jul 31, 2018 at 1:14 PM

click to enlarge Betaland - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Betaland
Charles Stack, a local tech CEO, penned a column that appeared in the Sunday Plain Dealer's Forum section advocating yet another "big audacious plan" for the region. 

While luxury car salesman Bernie Moreno attempts to corral local leaders around a "Blockland" initiative, (Moreno's vision of making Cleveland the "national epicenter for all things blockchain"), Stack is now proposing a "Betaland" initiative, his vision of transforming the region into a "vast proving ground for innovation."

What that means and how it will take shape is still unclear. Stack proposed a series of City Club forums to plan and implement this vision. But the pitch is basically that Cleveland should lure start-ups to the region not with funding but with consumers, local guinea pigs who would be selected to test fledgling products and services; and with a bountiful supply of free and/or cheap labor, courtesy of the "world's largest startup intern program"

Speaking as if the program already exists, per local custom, Stack writes that the Betaland intern program "leverages our 200,000 regional university students to assist startups and simultaneously prevent brain drain." The hope would be that these local interns go on to staff the new start-ups or start their own.

What's ironic about Stack's column is his suggestion that his vision is more "all-encompassing" than the others that have been circulating in the months since Amazon declined to name Cleveland a finalist for its second headquarters and leaders have been scrambling for something new and grand and unprecedented to get excited about.

Even the economic development conversations themselves have been unprecedented, in Stack's view, which is why he says the region has a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to change the its trajectory.

"The outgrowth of these [economic development] conversations is a flurry of great but largely disconnected ideas," Stack writes. "All these great concepts are largely based on recruiting and cultivating more startups."

Stack proceeds to introduce a disconnected idea based on recruiting and cultivating more start-ups.

Not to keep going back to attorney Jon Pinney, but isn't this sort of thing precisely symptomatic of the "egosystem" he criticized in his June City Club speech? It sure doesn't seem all that collaborative for Stack, less than a week after leaders gathered at HQ to brainstorm ideas for the Blockchain conference, (tentatively scheduled for the first week of December), and to hear Pinney's pitch for transforming Tower City into a blockchain tech campus, to take to the Plain Dealer and propose a "new and more all-encompassing" vision. 

How many new and all-encompassing visions can the region sustain? How many in a single week?

Maybe Blockland and Betaland can co-exist, but the impression one can't help receiving is that these two grand and all-encompassing visions are in competition. Even their stupid names are the same, the lazy and self-aggrandizing [Something]-land formation, as if the very city will be remade in the image of their fleeting idea.

Incidentally, Stack's column appeared alongside another — all part of a lively ongoing discussion grouped under the header,  "Cleveland's Future" — by Brad Whitehead. Whitehead is the Executive Director of the Fund for our Economic Future, which put out the Two Tomorrows report earlier this year.

Two Tomorrows presaged Pinney's City Club talk in many ways. But it had concrete plans attached: It suggested that the region should prioritize job creation, job preparation and job access as pathways to economic progress. It also, (uniquely, if I'm not mistaken), emphasized the importance of racial equity in all economic development discussions moving forward.

In his piece Sunday, Whitehead seemed to anticipate Stack's column. He said that good ideas were important, but that acting on them — "greater civic alignment and commitment to implementation at scale" — is what's needed most. Big audacious ideas mean jacksquat, in other words, if we don't bother to follow through. 

"Perhaps what we really have," Whitehead writes, "is a cultural problem masquerading as a strategy question." 

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