Google “digital city.”
What you will find is its meaning: a connected city, a smart city, where wireless infrastructure weaves information together to meet the needs of the government, its employees, residents and businesses. There are some standout digital cities—like New York, where former Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a Digital City Initiative and streamlined the city’s digital communication with the public; and Lafayette, which created a fiber optic utility through its Lafayette Utilities System. There’s Chattanooga, Tenn., which touts itself as the first “gig city”; and then there’s Portland, Ore., the city that rolled out municipal Wi-Fi in 2005, only to see it flop 18 months later.
Baton Rouge is not yet a digital city. It does not meet the criteria. It does not have a wireless infrastructure. It did not create a fiber optic utility system; instead, it relies on telecommunication providers—Cox, EATEL and AT&T—to provide for its residents. It does not offer citywide interactive services.
But what it lacks in logistics it makes up for in synergy.
The Red Stick is a hotspot for digital media companies, and the growing digital media industry in Baton Rouge is like a version of the seminal digital game Tetris, with each player representing a piece of the puzzle that relies on all for completion.
More and more pieces are lining up.
Baton Rouge—and Louisiana in general—offers an attractive package of incentives to develop digital businesses. It also has a built-in, world-class educational leader out on the LSU campus with a keen understanding of the needs of companies based on digital technology. And the area has a growing reputation for knowing how to put deals together to attract international powerhouse companies while not neglecting innovative startups.
In short, the Capital City is on the right road for its economic journey into the digital age.
“Baton Rouge is marketing itself nationally and internationally as a quality location for growth for all businesses,” says Jared Smith, director of the Baton Rouge Area Digital Industries Consortium. “However, there is a strong emphasis on the digital media industry. The Capital Region’s low-cost environment, when compared to other coastal hubs, the presence of existing industry, and strong state incentives make the region prime for long-term growth in digital media.”
BRADIC is part of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber; it works with Mayor Kip Holden’s office and Louisiana Economic Development to attract new digital media companies. Louisiana Technology Park houses some of those companies and provides them with enough resources to grow, while LSU, Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College create curriculum to attract new students to work for companies like IBM, Ameritas Technologies, TraceSecurity, EA Sports, Pixomondo, Venyu and PixelDash Studios.
However, Smith says the challenge is now “recruiting and developing the workforce needed to sustain the industry as it continues to grow.”
In early February, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced the LSU College of Engineering had exceeded its fundraising goal of $50 million for a new building on the campus by $2.5 million. Jindal said with dollar-for-dollar state matching funds, the new $105 million facility—which will house computer science and digital media classes—can begin construction. Over the next five years, the department also plans on doubling its faculty and is searching both domestically and internationally to hire the best, Koubek said.
It doesn’t hurt Baton Rouge’s allure that the city was chosen by IBM as the location for a major new service center. And while that announcement in 2013 was the catalyst for curriculum changes at LSU, Koubek says other digital companies in Baton Rouge will also benefit from what’s going on at LSU. The enrollment numbers for incoming freshmen who declared computer science as their major have already increased, up 53% from 72 students in 2012 to 110 students in 2013. The college has already received 27% more applications than it did during the same time last year.
“When they come, we need to keep them; we want to make sure they stay in computer science and help them understand the opportunities they have when they graduate,” Koubek says. “The market is so strong, when they graduate, they will have multiple offers. What we want to do is make sure the students know all of the opportunities that are available. The limiting factor is going to be the number of students compared to the number of jobs.”
For example, in 2010, there were 10 digital companies recruiting students at LSU’s fall career fair. Last year, 24 companies signed on to recruit students, a 140% increase in just three years, Koubek says.
It’s the same situation New Orleans is facing.
Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., says Baton Rouge and New Orleans function a lot like California’s Silicon Valley and San Franciscoboth 80 miles apart and “a single market” in the digital world. He says New Orleans is also challenged by the need to find enough workers to satiate digital companies.
There were 7,142 digital jobs in the greater New Orleans area last year. Over the next decade, GNO Inc. projects the area will experience a 15% increase in digital jobs requiring either two- or four-year degrees.
Hecht says New Orleans is considered one of the least-wired cities in the country, but potential companies wanting to locate to New Orleans seem willing to overlook that—and its past reputation for corrupt government officials—instead focusing on other features of the city.
“Honestly, they’re not asking about the wireless features at all,” Hecht says. “The three things companies want to know are: Is the digital media incentive real, am I going to be able to find enough talent, and is New Orleans really this new digital hub?”
And in Baton Rouge, digital media companies are focusing on the same features.
Evan Smith, creative director and co-founder of PixelDash Studios in Baton Rouge, says IBM’s decision to create a facility in the city validates Baton Rouge and legitimizes what digital companies do here. Because of Baton Rouge’s entrepreneurial spirit, he has confidence in the continued success of his own company and is proud he stayed in the city to work.
“We are from here; we just don’t take tax credits and leave,” says the 31-year-old New Orleans native. “We have a Louisiana connection, and we want to do something here.”
Ameritas Technologies opened an information technology center downtown last year. The company creates domestic software jobs that may previously have moved offshore to places like India and China. CEO Brian Keane says Baton Rouge was a perfect location for the company because of the city’s quality of life, low labor costs, economic incentives, and the accessibility of talent from large universities.
“Having colleges and universities that are local and become a supply chain for high-quality and highly educated talent is very attractive to us,” Keane says. “We are a digital economy; there’s almost nothing we touch that doesn’t have software involved in it somewhere.”
Marc Aubanel is the director for the Digital Media Arts and Engineering Program at LSU. He brings 20 years of experience running large global brands, including FIFA Soccer, NHL Hockey, Need for Speed Underground and Def Jam Vendetta for Electronic Arts. Since July, he has led DMAE, which offers the only master’s level degree—like an MBA for digital media—in the state.
“This is geared around industry needs in the digital media space,” Aubanel says. “We are working with academics and local companies to make sure we are doing what is needed.”
Local high schools are also helping their students adapt to changing technology.
Catholic High School issued full-featured laptops to all students this year. Principal Lisa Harvey says the transition from paper and pen to digital will help students when they graduate.
“It’s not just the laptops; it’s incorporating 21st-century technology skills they will need to be successful in college and the workforce,” Harvey says. “And they need to be good stewards of the state and stay here and create positive economic influences in the state. And if they have competitive jobs here, they will stay.”
But experts warn that infrastructure is crucial for high-tech recruitment, workforce training and retention.
Russell Senior, president of the Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Personal Telco Project, encourages cities to build a fiber-based infrastructuresimilar to what Lafayette didinstead of relying on outside providers.
But city-owned technologysimilar to a utilityis a pricey project. Senior estimates a price of $450 million but notes that a city could build it slowly, one neighborhood at a time, to determine whether it’s cost-effective.
“When you build infrastructure, you own it,” Senior says. “When you own it, then it’s yours do what you want with it.” He adds, “And really, do you want to keep paying rent for the service you want, or are you going to build it yourself?”
Parneet Gosal, chief digital strategist and founder of Seedwalker, a New York City-based digital strategy consulting practice, says that while many urban centers are attracting digital media companies, a true digital city requires a technological infrastructure. She says this infrastructure historically has begun at the city level with tax breaks, tech entrepreneurship policies and free Wi-Fi zones.
“An environment conducive to entrepreneurs is important as local businesses provide the fuel that keeps initiatives going and supports new business with the tools they need,” Gosal says. “You can’t do any of that without some of the network infrastructure.”
The World Health Organizationestimates that 7 out of 10 peoplewill live in cities by 2050. That ratio is one reason why experts say it’s important for cities to become connected and support digital initiatives today.
“I don’t doubt that this is going to happen,” Gosal says. “I think it’s going to be different from place to place. We’re at the very beginning of this. We haven’t even scratched the surface. We are trying to get different data bases and systems to talk to each other. That takes a while, and it’s expensive as well. But there’s no doubt that it will happen. That’s the future of business.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.