ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — University of New Mexico regents have made two big decisions around the innovation district they want constructed in Albuquerque’s Downtown.
The first was to join with city and county government to build the district, dubbed Innovate ABQ, in the first place, on the old First Baptist Church site at Broadway and Central. The second was to appoint an Innovate ABQ board of directors to build it.
The second decision has not been well-received. My colleague Mike Bush reported that critics want members other than middle-aged and older white guys on the board.
I can attest the six board members are capable people. They include members who are current or former university officials, a retired corporate executive and the head of the credit union that is helping to finance the project. Only Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has any entrepreneurial experience, to my knowledge. He put together a successful construction company before becoming mayor.
Last week, the university said it will likely add at least three more people to address the lack of gender, age and ethnic diversity. Political correctness aside, there is abundant research that shows a diverse board makes better decisions than a board composed entirely of one ethnicity or gender.
The university says the board is in charge of land development. The directors will worry about zoning and awarding contracts to builders. Other people, presumably more attuned to innovation and entrepreneurship, will worry about what to put into the development once it’s done.
The concept behind Innovate ABQ is that smart, creative people can be attracted to fun, stimulating urban environments and that, once they are there, they will feed off of one another’s vision and energy. They’ll help solve one another’s problems. They’ll discover they are working on similar projects and combine forces. One will tell another about a financing source.
It’s a valid concept. There was a bar in Mountain View, Calif., called Walker’s Wagon Wheel where everyone working on microprocessors in what became Silicon Valley eventually stopped in for a drink and conversation. Over time, the Wagon Wheel was augmented by computer clubs, and corporate and university research parks.
In Albuquerque today, a lot of entrepreneurs go to networking and learning events at business incubators around town. The idea is that, if you get enough of the right kind of people in the right environment, they will, like so many molecules, start colliding until they create something new and wonderful. It’s just a matter of giving them the right environment.
Whether Innovate ABQ will be the right environment, no one can say until it is up and running.
From the perspective of City Hall, Innovate ABQ is a great way to get a derelict property at the gateway to Downtown spiffed up and bustling. From UNM’s perspective, it’s a way to get more university buildings erected that can be filled with more students who will generate more revenue. Some of the entrepreneurs I’ve talked with aren’t clear what it is to them.
That’s where a board of directors is supposed to come in. Directors are supposed to be a living embodiment of the values and goals of the organization. Despite the good intentions of all involved, it is hard to argue that a board dominated by the UNM bureaucracy embodies the values and goals of the rule-breaking, revolutionary thinkers Innovate ABQ would like to attract.
UNM has a vital role to play in economic development, and that role is to become a much better university than it is today. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley in large part because Stanford University is there. Stanford produced Hewlett and Packard, the founders of Google and Yahoo, the inventor of the UNIX operating system and Elon Musk, whose decision not to put Tesla operations in New Mexico broke a lot of hearts here.
UNM has brilliant researchers and professors, but no critical mass of the sort that spawns generation after generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. Our university needs to build a substantial and significant world-class something.
When Intel decided to make chips in the area, Central New Mexico Community College (then known as TVI) made sure Intel had the trained workers necessary to run a factory. UNM did not create a world-class program in chip design. We are one of the largest oil- and natural gas-producing states in the country. UNM does not offer a program in petroleum engineering or in energy finance and accounting.
These days, we’re worried Intel will leave New Mexico. If we produced the right human capital, Intel would be crazy to be anywhere else. As a proud UNM alumnus, I’d submit that, not land development, is the university’s job.