Katie Stebbins says government's role in the civic tech, startup and technology arena is to build relationships and let the world know that these things are important.
Katie Stebbins, Massachusetts’ new assistant secretary of innovation, technology and entrepreneurship, says her job is like a cake. Not just because it has many layers, but also because she’s the glue, or frosting, that keeps technology, business and politics connected. Appointed in April, Stebbins is charged with finding new opportunities for government that create jobs and foster economic growth in the state.
During last year's elections, Massachusetts voted for a new Republican Governor – Charlie Baker, who was inaugurated in January – and part of Stebbins’ job is to identify how his new administration can remove policy barriers and facilitate change in the state.
“It’s important that I’m able to understand what those challenges are, and how we can have smart policy opinions and decision making this time around,” she said. “One of the things I’m hearing is that people want government to use a bully pulpit better to support emerging industries, emerging clusters, and to support the larger story and the larger buzz around the Boston ecosystem and around the statewide ecosystem. For example, let’s say we’re pursuing the e-health cluster – you as government can do a lot just by standing up and saying, ‘This is important.’”
In her new role, Stebbins is looking for opportunities in the realm of e-health and elsewhere to ensure the state is maximizing opportunities and building all the right relationships.
“It’s about communicating with people in municipal government about how they can prepare for their own success by knowing how to coordinate with and communicate with people in the tech and innovation world and in the startup world,” Stebbins said. “I would argue that a lot of mayors and elected officials get too complacent, leaving it to the regional business memberships associations or to state government and not really delving into these clusters that might be in their own backyard.”
Stebbins connected elected officials with workers in the state’s advanced manufacturing industry last week, and it’s those kinds of meetings that can open new doors and make a difference, she said.
“The mayors got to hear about the industries in their backyard that are very important, that are employing their voters and what are the ways they need to be supported in? What’s interesting is every mayor out here is also the chair of the school committee, so it became a very relevant conversation," she said, because suddenly there's a mayor who’s able to go to a school committee meeting or an economic development council meeting and speak intelligently on what's being done in the vocational and technical schools to teach kids around advanced manufacturing and IT. "I’d like to be a bit of an instigator in that space to do more.”
Education has connections with e-health and the startup community, but it takes work to make those relationships happen. Massachusetts’ behavioral health clinics offer resources to their communities, but teachers may not know what those resources are or have the technology for easy access to those services for their students. Officials, likewise, might have an inkling of the kinds of people who live in their communities and how they spend their days, Stebbins said, but there are opportunities to equip leaders with data so they can understand their communities in a more concrete way.
Civic tech and social nonprofits are the arena in which many of the aforementioned disciplines intersect, often doing the jobs that government would do itself if it could. Facilitating civic tech is also a big part of what Stebbins said she hopes to do for the state.
“I had a civic tech startup myself and I think that’s probably my best foot into the door, through these communities. If I can get the mayors and the economic development departments and city halls making better use of civic tech that’s out there and better conversations with those startups, those entrepreneurs, I think they will really start to see this knowledge-based and tech-based economy is relevant to them and how they don’t have to be a passive player in it -- they can be an active player in it.”
Stebbins spent 10 years working in economic development for the city of Springfield, Mass., heading the environmental program and coordinating brownfield development. She later served as an economic development consultant for the one of the state’s poorest communities, Holyoke, where she helped develop the Holyoke Innovation District, a high-performance computing center today used by Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern University and University of Massachusetts Amherst. The center provided a much-needed cloud computing hub to the region’s learning institutions, cut costs by taking advantage of the Holyoke municipal power service’s low rates, and helped Holyoke by turning one of its brownfields into a high-tech facility. Opportunities, like that one, can be found at the intersection of technology, education and economic development if officials look for them, Stebbins said.
“We need to tell our stories better, and we rely on the movers and shakers in that startup support world, the accelerators, the co-working space folks,” she said. “Government can play a significant role in standing up and saying, ‘Look at everything we’re doing, this is important.’”