360 Degrees of Separation

The New Economy Learns Some Old Lessons at Austin's Third 360 Summit

What was that smell rising from the Austin Music Hall on January 11? Was it barbecue? Or was it just singed flesh? As leaders in Austin's technology industries gathered with their community counterparts for this year's 360.01 Summit, they made no secret of how bad they got burned by the year 2000. Stock prices sank. Dot-coms stank. And light rail went into the tank. What's a New Economy to do?

Well, at least it showed up for 360.01, the third installment (after 360.Alpha and 360.00) of an effort by entrepreneurs Steve Papermaster and Peter Zandan at "bridging the technology community." The summit is, of course, a venue for techies to talk shop and schmooze, but its real calling has been more altruistic -- to serve "as a catalyst to effect change at many levels of the community throughout Austin and beyond."

Given their money, power, and influence, the techies were expected, and to a degree expected themselves, to effect a whole lotta change at Internet speed. That was surely the vibe coming out of last year's summit, when Tech Austin was high on life and The Rest of Us were busily toting up the action items techies could tackle to help out the town they'd colonized. But now it's 2001, and it is not a different world.

Well, no, it is a different and much poorer world for the industry, which saw its flood tide of dumb money recede from Austin's streets back out to sea. Now that conventional rules of business apply, it is good news that more techies showed up for 360.01 than for 360.00; they do not appear to be fair-weather plutocrats.

Sure, after a while the point about the bad weather had been made, and the companions-in-misery vibe could feel a little sticky to a non-techie. There's always a small, still voice in your head inviting sadder-but-wiser ByteBoy and licking-her-wounds ClickChick to take a long holiday in Bangladesh. After all, Tech Austin's fortunes have still not declined to the level of Austin's pre-boom standard of living.

But the 360.01 Summit was on the whole less whiny than, say, South by Southwest around the turn of the last decade, a nexus of similar Austin angst. Summiteers agreed, for example, that Austin tech culture is boring and in a bit of a rut. ("The Austin music scene is just a bunch of aging blues and country hippies.") And that there aren't enough support services for Austin to be a real big tech town. ("We need labels! We need A&R!") Or that too many bad companies got too much dumb money and never got better. ("Austin bands are lazy and don't want to rehearse because they know they can always get gigs.")

So whatever the field of human endeavor -- technology, music, politics -- as soon as you slap it between the words "Austin" and "scene," it apparently starts functioning by Austin rules, which to a layperson was a striking feature of 360.01. The techies have been assimilated, and their efforts at social action and responsibility are part of, not an alternative to, the way Austin works, just as their businesses are part of, and not the replacement for, the greater Austin economy.

Partly, that's because, as Mindwave Research president, local political celebrity, and potential mayoral candidate Robin Rather put it, "the boom may be slowing down, but the impact of the boom isn't. We all understand that and still have to deal with that." Not that it ever really felt to Tech Austin that it was someone else's traffic or air quality that was getting whacked, not their own. And with the dumb-money well running dry, affordability is no longer something that only shift workers and bar bands have to think about. But the tech community may now see that they are neither smarter nor harder-working than the previous waves of citizens who've tackled these intractable problems.

The obvious case study is the tech industry's failure to cross the light rail goal line. "For many of us, this was our first foray into local politics, or into politics at any level," said Austin Ventures general partner John Thornton, one of the more visible techies in community affairs. Referring to the A-Train's 2,004-vote margin of defeat, Thornton added that "tech helped it come that close, and we have a lot to be proud of. But we needed to coordinate our efforts better with other groups. We didn't have anything as pithy as [the anti-light rail slogan] 'costs too much, does too little,' and I'm embarrassed we didn't effectively counter that." Techies poured a lot of money into the referendum, but by the time they realized people would still have to knock on doors, it was too late.

Yet Thornton and other tech leaders are, if anything, more rarin' to go than they were before, suggesting that the reality of Austin public life is more interesting than the new-sheriff-in-town fantasies of last spring. The action group-cum-think tank that formed at last year's summit, now called the Austin Idea Network, has developed four projects to address air quality, affordable housing, education, and community development (see "Big Ideas," left).

Among the key players in the Idea Network effort was Lisa Sharples, whose formerly high-flying venture, Garden.com, is now pushing up daisies. "Call me an eternal optimist, but Garden.com's going under gives me more time for this initiative," she said. (Earlier, Sharple's husband and business partner, Cliff Sharples, along with DrKoop.com's Don Hackett, had anchored a panel on the sins of the dot-coms.)

Which lends another dimension to the noblesse oblige arguments of last year -- those rich pigs better give something back, etc. "If you're committed to Austin," said Tivoli Systems CEO Jan Lindelow, "the economic times don't matter. The amount of money we have to give will be different, but the level of commitment is the same."

While the Idea Network has the most direct blood ties to the 360 Summits, one would have to have been under a fairly large rock not to have noticed an upsurge in techie activism and philanthropy in recent months, and attendees at 360.01 felt good enough to call for a 360.02 next year. Which points to an upcoming fork in the road.

Things like the Idea Network will probably become permanent institutions in the local industry -- social entrepreneurship taken past the IPO stage. But what about the Summits themselves? As Tech Austin loses its identity as a separate force, and as Austin grows into its identity as one diverse major city, the bridge Zandan and Papermaster are trying to construct will be built. So the day we no longer need a 360 Summit will be a glorious day, and it may not be that far off. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin 360 Summit, Steve Papermaster, Peter Zandan, John Thornton, Austin Idea Network, Robin Rather, Lisa Sharples, Cliff Sharples, Don Hackett, Garden.com, Drkoop.com, Jan Lindelow, social entrepreneurship

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