Erika D. Smith

One edge on tech Sacramento has, San Francisco doesn’t

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, seen at a news conference in October 2015, has been the driving force behind the innovation fund and its mandate for the city to be far more responsive to quick-thinking entrepreneurs.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, seen at a news conference in October 2015, has been the driving force behind the innovation fund and its mandate for the city to be far more responsive to quick-thinking entrepreneurs. rpench@sacbee.com

There’s an old saying about how insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By that definition, Sacramento is truly insane.

How many times has this stodgy government town, overrun by policy wonks and hamstrung by bureaucracy, tried to transform itself into some sort of happening hub for technology and innovation? Dozens?

How many leaders have prematurely touted technology as the key to unlocking the diversity of Sacramento’s economy? How many working groups and organizations, the Sacramento Regional Technology Alliance among them, have come and gone and morphed into something else?

Most people who care about such things probably have lost count by now.

And, yet, here we are again.

Last week, the City Council unanimously approved the creation of a $10 million Innovation and Growth Fund to build a thriving ecosystem of tech companies and entrepreneurs in Sacramento.

How big? Five hundred startups with 5,000 new jobs within five years.

To do that, millions of dollars will be doled out each year in grants for entrepreneurs and in venture capital for existing startups. Hundreds of thousands of dollars also will go toward convincing tech companies to move here and streamlining the often clunky way the city does business with businesses.

For Sacramento, a city that’s mired in an indecipherable morass of bureaucracy, this is a big deal if it works. It will be a particularly big deal for Mayor Kevin Johnson, who has been the driving force behind the innovation fund and its mandate for the city to be far more responsive to quick-thinking entrepreneurs.

With only a few months left in office, Johnson is talking more and more about his legacy.

Saving the Kings and building Golden 1 Center are hugely important parts of it. Same with the big thinking that sparked a renaissance downtown and in midtown. But all of that would somehow fall flat for Sacramento’s first black mayor if large swaths of the city’s poorest minority residents were unable to partake in it all.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in neighborhoods such as Del Paso Heights, Valley Hi, Meadowview and Oak Park. On streets there, crime rates are high and so is unemployment.

Johnson gets excited talking about how the innovation fund will address some of those gaps by deliberately targeting the grant dollars and venture capital toward applicants who show a commitment to inclusion and openness.

Eventually, there will be more of a focus on those four “priority neighborhoods.” The idea is to bring teenagers and young adults into the fold, getting them into co-working spaces and incubator programs so they can network with other budding entrepreneurs.

It is as council member Eric Guerra said during last week’s City Council meeting: “We are trying to make sure we are creating opportunities ... for (people) here.”

So, at its core, yes, the innovation fund is about diversifying Sacramento’s economy away from government jobs and real estate. But, bigger picture, it’s also about changing the diversity of who is taking part in our local economy.

Maybe now Sacramento can finally start broadening some of the conversations people have been having for years about tech companies. Such as ways to attract and support, say, more biotech companies or green-tech companies in the city and region. Or how to get Hewlett-Packard to stop cutting its workforce in Roseville or how to make Apple’s expansion in Elk Grove as easy as possible.

These older-school economic development strategies are certainly still worthwhile. But they also ignore the untapped talent in some of the city’s poorest areas. And they miss the fact that thousands of our residents commute into the Bay Area every week just to get access to a tech incubator or grant or business permit that they can’t get here.

Sacramento can do better. So, call me insane, but I really think this innovation fund and the youthful energy behind it might work this time.

The fund, with its many moving pieces and parts, will be run by a new Mayor’s Office of Innovation, which is already accepting applications for grants. Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg has pledged to keep the office when his term begins. Steinberg often refers to the city’s evolution as a test of whether a college student can stay and make a life here. He’s not wrong either.

Stodgy, recalcitrant government towns are boring after a while. That’s why I’m glad Sacramento is giving this whole technology and innovation thing one more shot.

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