On August 8, 2023, approximately fifty people from across the Rocky Mountain Front Range convened at the University Memorial Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. They came for “Local Tech Ecologies,” a regional conference celebrating technology designed to empower local communities. After MEDLab director Nathan Schneider opened up the conference, Mayor Aaron Brockett of Boulder gave a brief talk about the work happening in local tech and community building across Boulder and the surrounding communities.
Following Mayor Brockett was Dr. Fernanda R. Rosa from Virginia Tech. She gave the first keynote address, which raised critical questions about the “local,” including its colonial implications and its relationship to the “global.” In the process, she shared the voices of various projects around the world attempting to build local tech ecologies. There were some technical issues during Dr. Rosa’s talk, which led to more discussion with the audience while the tech crew worked. Unfortunately, due to these issues, we were unable to capture recordings of the mayor's introduction or Dr. Rosa's outstanding lecture.
Dr. Rosa offered a powerful reminder to think critically about what we mean when we discuss the local, who is left out of those conversations, and how to bring those people to the forefront when discussing technological solutions. For instance, her talk included a video, "Indigenous People Run Their Own Cellphone Network," an important opportunity to hear about a local tech project in the participants' own voices.
With that, we moved into the lightning talks. The goal of this session was to showcase a diverse range of locally focused tech projects underway in Colorado. Each project had seven minutes to present. During the session we had folks share all sorts of projects, startups, and community-building ventures including Nigh, Bloom Network, the Colorado Venture Capital Authority, Rootable, Colorado ReWild, the Media Archeology Lab, Slay The Runway, the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, and Nosh. LeeLee James of Slay the Runway also had difficulties with multimedia; see her materials at NPR and PBS.
What came from the lightning talks was more than just sharing what is going on across Colorado. Technology can become a very tiring and dark subject to explore. Many global solutions and tech communities have done a great deal of harm across the world. The lightning talks inspired many in the room, offering a reminder that more community-based technologies really are possible.
There was a break following the lightning talks where much of this excitement was shared throughout the conference. As people settled back down for the lunch keynote, Dr. Ted Striphas of the University of Colorado Boulder gave a reflection on the lightning talks that, among other things, called into question the intrinsic value of the local.
Our lunch keynote speaker was Ethan Zuckerman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His talk examined the relationship between misinformation and democracy, going back to the founding of the United States, while drawing lessons from that history for today. By the time of his talk, he had already posted to his blog about Dr. Rosa's keynote and the lightning talks.
After Dr. Zuckerman’s charismatic analysis, we moved onto the final planned session of the day, the panels. These divided the conference into breakout rooms to discuss three topics: gaming, journalism, and crisis.
The gaming panel hosted Anne Marie and Taylor Clark from CU Gaming and Griffin Opp from CSU gaming to discuss the difficulties in cultivating local communities in the vast and global world of online gaming and esports.
The journalism panel heard from three local journalists Stacey Feldman from the Boulder Reporting Lab, Rossana Longo from the Colorado News Collaborative, and Linda Shapley from Colorado Community Media. All three of them discussed the importance of local tech and community in both reporting and news entrepreneurship.
The crisis panel focused on how technologies could better serve local communities in the context of crises such as natural disasters. Dr. Nabil Echchaibi of CU Boulder opened the panel, followed by talks from Dr. Leysia Palen of CU Boulder and independent documentary filmmaker Saleh Khaled Ibrahim.
The conference concluded with a reception where participants discussed their projects with individuals, shared laughs, and enjoyed the warm Colorado sun beaming in through the windows of the conference room.
The Local Tech Ecologies conference did more than just showcase ideas on what it means to build community and local technology networks, it was a living embodiment of its goals. People who may have never engaged with one another otherwise were able to come together in one space to discuss the trials and promise of what a local tech future could bring. Importantly, something that touched me was the openness of the space, the warm inviting wonder many had in sharing their ideas. We seek to build a brighter and more hopeful idea of technology than the dominant narrative of global tech companies today.