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Lightning Talks at CU Boulder Local Tech Economies

Much of the Local Tech Ecology conference is a series of lightning talks at the Local Tech Ecologies conference at CU Boulder. Some short notes on each talk:

Josh Ritzer from Nigh: “Talking about local is one of the most important things we’re not doing in society.” Josh grew up in Minnesota in a small town, and remembers watching big box stores displacing local businesses. He notes that rising inequality is destroying America’s middle class. We need to transform local commerce, building systems that pushes economic value to the local level.

Coupons and “deals” are signs of an inefficient market, he argues. We need businesses to be able to adjust prices in real time to help local businesses be more profitable. 70% of consumer spending is still local, which means transforming local could be a massive transformation.

Nigh is a small, Boulder-based tech company. It’s local TikTok, with videos from local businesses. A Boulder pilot has brought dozens of customers to local businesses, sometimes in less than an hour, often during some of their shortest times. These drops (short videos) work, but aren’t scaleable – they’re now pivoting to daily local broadcasts. These are short videos and include local news organizations as well as messages from local businesses.

Caroline Savery from Bloom Network: “Bloom’s mission is a billion acts of regeneration.” The goal is people taking action at local scales. She points out that 2/3rds of people agree we’re in a climate crisis, but cannot find local ways to participate. She describes Bloom as a “cyber-physical” social network, which allows you to give money, time or energy to local initiatives. It’s structured as a global DAO, capable of distributing resources to local projects.

The project has started 700 farms and gardens, based around 32 hubs and 30,000 real life participants. The structure allows solutions to be locally developed, which is necessary for sustainability and appropriateness to local situations. Savery is involved specifically with the Denver Bloom, hosted at a “cooperative congregation” called Shared Ground. It’s an effort for both local communities and climate responses – bringing people together to cultivate local solutions is the mission of the “church”.

Nikhil Mankekar is the vice chair of the Colorado Venture Capital Authority, a project of the State of Colorado to invest in businesses within the state. The organization provides seed stage capital ($500k-$1m), and runs funds of funds, with a focus on diversity and supporting underrepresented startup founders.

There are massive inequities in who receives startup funding in the state. But CVCA believes they are uniquely positioned to solve these disparities, by virtue of being local and capable of directly centering multiple diversities. He notes that “friends and family” rounds, like Jeff Bezos used to initially finance Amazon, is a gap that needs to be bridged to bring underrepresented founders into the mix.

Becks Boone presents Rootable, a volunteer logistics software package that’s incorporating as a cooperative software company. The work comes out of Boulder Food Rescue, a non-profit moving produce from grocery stores to local communities. One of the founders created open source software to manage these logistics and has been maintaining it for a decade. This software is likely helpful for 32 other food rescue organizations that are members of the Food Rescue Alliance, but these organizations don’t have lots of time to build their own logistics software.

Becks invited participation from these 32 organizations and built an MVP (minimum viable product) based on this input and feedback. The work began with the six Colorado rescue organizations – it was very hard to align input from all 32 organizations. Jamie Anderson leads Denver Food Rescue, a project that’s not yet on the platform. Denver Food Rescue manages 45 vendors and 120 volunteers, 363 days a year. She feels strongly that apps are not the solution – it’s the community working on food justice that’s the solution.

Not only does a logistics platform need to support all the moving pieces, it needs to track donations so that food donors can get the tax writeoffs they deserve. There are major barriers to tech adoption – older volunteers, volunteers who don’t speak much English. There’s also a tremendous need for flexibility: what happens when a recipient’s warehouse is flooded? (Super exciting project in a space that needs all the help it can get.)

Pat Kelly of Colorado ReWild is the sponsor for our conference as a whole. He’s the founder of Routinify, tech for aging adults to help people age in place.
Colorado ReWild seeks open social networks for networking local nonprofits. The goal is to embed the tech into local organization’s websites, rather than pushing users to Mastodon or something else.

ReWild is based on ActivityPub, and uses Mastodon and PeerTube under the hood, but the goal is to keep people embedded within the websites they’re already using. He’s aware that there’s a strong need to stoke the conversation. The goal is to use lots of CU Boulder interns to create content, helping people understand the values behind volunteerism. Structurally, the goal is for people using the software to be owners of the relationships and content.

Kelly shares thoughts on why it’s critical to keep users on your site: stay connected, don’t lose these users to Twitter, Facebook or somewhere else. You’ll own the content and eventually own the conversation. He’s trying to lower risk to nonprofit participants by offering five years for free and ensuring content can be cloned between YouTube and Instagram to reduce replication of effort.

Libi Striegl is managing director of the Media Archeology Lab at CU Boulder, one of the largest collections of functional archaic technology in the world. The center was founded by Dr. Lori Emerson in 2009, and gives students hands on interactions with obsolete technologies that still have artistic and historical value.

The Media Archeology Lab seems like a museum, but is not one – it’s more interested in experiential and hands-on learning. With that in mind, Striegl has brought several OLPC devices, which they were gifted in 2017. The machines had been in use in Ethiopia, but there’s a real gap between what these machines were promised to be, and what they actually were useful for. They ended up being an object lesson in the importance of educators and the difficulty of building technology that can be used without oversight or supervision.

The OLPC machines are here today, using their mesh networking to create a local network which can be used for chat, without using hashtags on Xitter or other global networks – what can we do with the detritus of failed tech experiments and repurpose for new purposes.

LeeLee James, “the twirling tech goddess” presents Slay the Runway as a platform for empowering queer youth through fashion. LeeLee is a YouTuber who focuses on accessibility for people historically underrepresented in STEM through fashion and wearable tech. She was a drag queen and a figure skater with Disney on Ice, and is now a student at CU Boulder majoring in Computer Science, and a mother to queer “gabies and babies”.

Slay the Runway is a two week long camp where young queer and trans youth from Boulder and Longmont come to maker spaces and teach people how to sew. It ends with a runway show, displaying the work created by young queer creators. LeeLee explains how mentors have empowered her with skills in the past, including sewing and ice skating, and how this motivates her work.

Erika Lanco and Trish Uvenferth of the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center present The Drivers Cooperative-CO, a brand new ride share cooperative in Colorado. Uvenferth introduces herself as a former computer programmer who had some life changes, and explored a variety of gig work. Lyft and Uber worked well for her at first, but the fares started decreasing, and the customers started complaining about prices. She felt like something could be done to challenge the platform duopoly.

She connected with the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, which was building a new platform owned by workers. Could a new platform address issues like discrimination against drivers due to ethnicity, language or race? Could these systems be fairer fiscally to drivers without overpaid CEOs? Drivers for Uber and Lyft get about 30-40% of fares, which doesn’t seem fair. The goal is to give drivers 80% of the fare using a local app, giving only 20% to the cooperative.

Lanco is a researcher at RMEOC, which incubates new worker-owned projects and helps convert existing businesses to worker ownership. She cites the Drivers Cooperative in New York, which began in 2019 and was able to make $5 million by 2022. There’s now a federation of Driver’s coops in Colorado, NY, SF and LA. There are now 200 drivers signed up to work on this in Colorado. The goal isn’t just better fares, but driver control and ownership.

Mike Perhats of Nosh presents on Open Commerce Networks. Nosh is a food delivery cooperative in Fort Collins, Colorado. He cites a history of GrubHub “gobbling up” local food delivery companies, which had good relationships with local restaurants, raising prices and decreasing quality. Nosh is a restaurant-owned alternative to Doordash and others, saving restaurants an average of $4.90 an order by challenging monopoly ownership. Nosh now has 50% penetration in Ft. Collins.

Nosh is now working with a lab at Princeton to build Open Commerce Networks, helping disintermediate these powerful middlemen from local economies. He describes most Silicon Valley companies as one of two things: aggregators and arms-dealers. Aggregators hide data from their suppliers and control the relationships; arms dealers empower companies, but sacrifice network effects. Could there be an alternative to these two paradigms?

When platforms achieve power via network effects, they can effectively raise prices to whatever level they want. Drivers and riders on Lyft don’t communicate – the platform becomes indispensible. But restaurants are different – the relationship is between the specific restaurant and consumer. Is there a way to use open standards and systems to enable less captured ecommerce relationships?