The following post was submitted by Ed Blayney, Louisville’s Innovation Project Manager, to provide further detail about the Gigabit Experience Center, one of the Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award winning projects.

The PNC Gigabit Experience Center is an open-access community technology center with a public gigabit internet connection in one of the most challenged neighborhoods in Louisville. We created the center in conjunction with a local non-profit community center to make ultra high-speed internet in a modern collaborative environment available to residents of the Russell Neighborhood, and Louisville at-large.

The inspiration for the project came from the president of PNC Foundation, Chuck Denny. He wanted Louisville residents to have an opportunity to experience gigabit-speeds first-hand so they could see its transformational potential. The center’s location across the street from one of our largest public housing developments, Beecher Terrace, ensures that people among the most underserved in our community will be in proximity of and have access to the center. We imagine the center, once the vision is fully manifested, to be a bustling community center for citizens on both sides of the 9th street divide with interactive experiences, training, and technology-themed events.

During National Digital Inclusion Week in May 2017, we launched the pilot version of the physical environment. This three month soft launch, which included a slate of educational and professional technology events, will inform us of what works best as a collaborative space. As we build out the center, the lessons we will (and have already) learned will be invaluable to achieving our vision. The soft opening will allow us to learn the kinds of collaborative environments, technology, and programming we need to make permanent to provide value to guests. Already, the center has hosted a few technology events, including a technology-skateboard build, a two day 3-D printing course for girls, a cybersecurity summit for information security professionals, a meeting of the Mayor’s Innovation Advisory Council, the launch of our digital inclusion plan, and a hackathon hosted by our local Code for America brigade.

The center has gotten off to a great start, and we have lessons learned to share. Our first piece of advice for someone trying to do something similar: show, don’t tell. We spent months building a shared vision for the center, but were unable to move it forward until we did a tour of local innovation spaces. Starting with our initial discussions, we wanted to replicate the feeling of a coffee shop and start-up incubator, but words and pictures were not doing them justice. Once we toured various innovative, startup companies around Louisville, the pilot phase of the center came together quickly.

The next lesson we learned was to provide as much technical support as possible. Our partners did a great job of getting the center prepared for the launch, but they had technical difficulties along the way that could have been mitigated. The places that need the community-technology centers the most will probably need your technical support the most as well. Don’t take anything for granted — ask questions. We were able to overcome all of our challenges, but it wasn’t without avoidable delays.

Based on our early results, the future of the PNC Gigabit Experience Center is bright. We expect that people from around Louisville will continue to come to the Russell neighborhood to experience the future of technology in one our most challenged neighborhoods — an accomplishment in itself beyond what goes on within the center.

Our three pieces of advice for others trying to create something like the PNC Gigabit Experience Center:

1. Seeing is believing. Tour local innovation spaces or visit other communities to see what they are doing. Words and pictures cannot replicate being there.

2. Provide as much technical support as possible. If you are working with a community partner, do not take anything for granted. Check all of the boxes and make it a hand-in-hand process throughout.

3. Ask local partners for help. Companies and businesses are excited to partner on projects like this. Many of them instantly realize the need for digital inclusion and collaborative spaces in challenged neighborhoods. In many ways, getting local support for the project was the easiest part of launching the Gigabit Experience Center.