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Highland: an experiment in space, place, and technological change

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Just as the suburban built environment was fueled by development of the railroad network in the 19th century, then the national highway network in the 20th century, our suburban and exurban communities that seek growth today will need to invest in developing their infrastructural networks to stay abreast of technological developments that continue to alter how we conceive and interact with place. With physical transportation networks reaching a plateau of development wherein current conditions form a status quo of needs, desires and expectations of the built environment, communities can innovate in their infrastructural planning and development initiatives through switching focus to their digital transportation infrastructure.

A recent article on InnoChicago shows how small towns and suburbs can harness technological change to profoundly affect local economies and how we perceive our communities as places to work and live. In 2010, the citizens of Highland, Illinois (a suburb of St. Louis with a population of 9,919 in 2010) approved a $20 million referendum to build an optical fiber network offering internet speeds of 1000mb per second. Highland isn't alone; its investment makes the suburb one of 18 Gigabit cities in the US, and the FCC's Gigabit City Challenge is helping to spur major development of our digital information network at a national scale. Responses to the Challenge have seen major urban centers offer new opportunities for neighborhoods to attract investment from high tech industries already present in other parts of the city (like the $2 million Illinois seed investment to bring optical fiber and wireless to Mid-South Chicago neighborhoods), and smaller cities like Chattanooga looking to charm businesses whose employees might want a more bucolic life away from the relentless density and crushing commutes associated with the city. The Google Fiber project in Kansas City offers a new high tech edge to a large urban area that bundles industries together in an urban environment that may have been otherwise overlooked by today's tech entrepreneurs. But Highland's staggering investment puts its plans for development at a larger scale than these other cities, with the transformative power of digital infrastructure offering a template for making a small periphery suburb into a new center in the metropolitan area. And this new digital connectivity is adjacent to the physical distance that defines Highland's built form through its relative isolation from the urban environment of St. Louis.

Highland is now an experiment in the format of our built environment to explore how physical proximity and inhabitants' notions of distance and the value of local place will be altered through this new technological infrastructure. To get things moving, the town has launched the 2014 Highland Gigabit Challenge, "to:

  • Identify and develop 3 tech-focused “high-growth” start-ups

  • Increase awareness of Highland’s Gigabit infrastructure

  • Continue to develop Highland’s technology infrastructure and support systems

The first place winner will receive a $15,000 cash prize in addition to support from the Highland Entrepreneurship Program (HEP), office space, and Gigabit level internet service. The two runners-up will receive a $5000 cash prize in addition to support from the HEP program, office space, and internet service from Highland Communication Services." You have until 10/20/2014 to enter. We eagerly wait for the results...

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