I have been teaching in San Antonio for more than a year and a half now. But, it was just this September when I left my job in the Silicon Valley and moved to Texas from Oakland, CA. San Antonians frequently tell me in apologetic whispers, “San Antonio is a big small town.” This sends a clear message: we are no Austin, New York, Houston, San Francisco, or Chicago. As if to say, "We are sorry about that, we are working on it."
Based on the recent "City on the Rise" and "Under Construction" reports from The 80/20 Foundation, work is indeed underway to improve San Antonio and make it into a world-class city. Graham Weston was recently quoted in a Texas CEO Magazine article celebrating the amazing things happening in San Antonio.
“We can go from being a big, small town to being a great big city over the next 20 years and we have a great foundation to build on,” he said.
As a Silicon Valley transplant, I want to respectfully offer my perspective on what San Antonio can be and why its greatest asset is being a big small town.
This Thanksgiving, I went back to Oakland and the Silicon Valley for the holiday. The transportation infrastructure is insanely overwhelmed, rent is going up as much as $9,000 each year, and the culture that makes the Bay Area amazing is fading rapidly. This cultural shift is largely because of the hyper-concentration of tech giants who recruit from all over the world to the Bay Area.
The most unique neighborhoods where the young and hip want to live are corridors for the iconic commuter buses that whisk highly paid employees all over the region. This is a recruitment tool - the cool, gritty lifestyle (that you need a $90,000 a year salary to afford) and chillaxed commuter bus rides to the office where a hot breakfast is waiting. Annoying venture capital groupie randoms stalk meetups and events to seem important and regurgitate stories from Mashable and TechCrunch. I personally endured a four to five-hour commute every day.
The communities in established Bay Area neighborhoods are being displaced, disconnected, and dispersed to the ‘burbs by rising rents and businesses are no longer owned by people who live in the neighborhood. The incoming tenants are also relocating, equally disconnected from their community and support networks. The resulting culture in both the historic neighborhoods and 'burbs is simultaneously homogenous and fragmented with a waning sense of place, character, civic engagement and meaningful community.
The Bay Area residents of neighborhoods like the Mission and West Oakland are speaking out in the way that we do best - protests and disruptions. Groups are blocking commuter buses, and tension is expected to mount in 2014 into a full “tech-lash.” As an Oaklandish person at heart, I am truly going to miss participating in our East Bay social movement and civil rights culture on this one because that legacy is fading so quickly.
West Oakland, where I lived before San Antonio, is undergoing a tense gentrification. When I moved to Texas, my friend said, “Oakland will always be here for you.” Considering the recent changes in who is living in Oakland, I am not confident in that otherwise endearing statement, even though projects like PopUpHood, a neighborhood business incubator, and City Slicker Farms, an urban community-supported agriculture program, continue to inspire me.
Are we seeing a shift in where people want to be? Right-sized, smart cities like San Antonio make it on to Forbes.com and other lists of hot spots not only because of their head room for growth, momentum and potential returns, but also because the legendary Silicon hubs are overgrown, cumbersome, volatile and difficult. The cost of living in San Antonio and other booming big small towns will change with inflation, higher average incomes from awesome tech jobs, etc. However, there is a certain quality of life that is achievable here. Shorter commute times also improve what we can do in our lives personally, professionally, socially and civically.
My very first trip to San Antonio I found a cultural difference that delighted me. People here who I did not know were genuinely connecting with me all the time –on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, on campus. That was so different from the disaffected, infrequent eye-contact, transactional communication I was accustomed to in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.
Because of this way of connecting, small towns lack anonymity. This can be a good or bad thing but it usually means people behave themselves a little bit more. We are less likely to harm each other because we know it can stick with us. When we contribute to the community, we have more visibility. This influences our ethical and moral behavior as well as how we perceive the personal value of contributing and participation.
Small town, human networks have a very robust shape. In a Complex Adaptive System, we might say that connections are evenly distributed. In practice (and plain language) this means that it is fast and easy to get from one person to another. We can easily find help with anything from capital for a startup to where to send kids to school to the best grocery store for organic produce from local farmers. There are few true super-connectors who bottleneck or block outright the channels of communication.
Small towns, with the shape of their evenly connected human network, are great at solving problems. As issues and opportunities arise, the small town can better communicate and coordinate meaningful collective action. This keeps engagement high, government right-sized and many issues from growing unchecked.
This is how San Antonio can not only grow in a way that attracts and fosters the next big thing in tech or innovation; this is where San Antonio can go beyond what the Silicon mega-cities have accomplished. The local talent pipeline and social innovations that Mr. Weston supports through The 80/20 Foundation and other efforts are examples of how this is being done.
To encourage the founding of more social enterprises in San Antonio, The Najim Center for Business Innovation and Social Responsibility, in partnership with the St. Mary’s University School of Law, is hosting an event Jan. 17 at Geekdom about benefit corporations in Texas. As we put the event together, I was amazed at how many wonderful people I met who wanted to create socially responsible businesses. The support I received from local sponsors and community members was instant and their excitement contagious.
So, be bigger, better, smarter, more data-driven, and stay connected, engaged, contributing and kind. Build a layer of features like parks and streetcars and higher density housing that will make this city attractive to workers, businesses and entrepreneurs to both relocate and stay while maintaining the small town human networks. Upgrade San Antonio to a better version of itself every day. Make San Antonio a kind of great that has never been seen before – the kind that builds on these assets and creates a globally recognized “social innovation at scale” brand so that when we say that “San Antonio is a big small town,” we say it loud and proud.
Suz Burroughs, director of the Harvey Najim Center for Business Innovation and Social Responsibility at St. Mary's University, completed her undergraduate degree in Art History from the University of California at Berkeley with Scholarly Distinction. She also has a M.S., Ed. in Education from California State University East Bay with a specialization in online teaching and learning. While working for Google, Suz taught innovation, trained facilitators, led personal development activities, and designed learning programs. Visit her website at suzburroughs.com, and find her on Google+.