Inside the innovation offices of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, working on making the region more equitable as it attracts major tech companies

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Inside the innovation offices of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, working on making the region more equitable as it attracts major tech companies
Insider
Inside the innovation offices of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, working on making the region more equitable as it attracts major tech companies
Raleigh, North Carolina.Shutterstock.com
  • The Raleigh-Durham region is attracting top companies like Apple with its tech infrastructure.
  • These cities are striving to develop talent, support expansion, and improve economic opportunity.
  • Here's a look at some of the projects the Raleigh and Durham innovation offices are focused on.

Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, has been a hub of innovation for decades.

The two cities, located about 25 miles apart, are part of the Research Triangle Park, which was founded in 1959 as the largest planned research center in the country.

Today, the park encompasses 7,000 acres and houses hundreds of science and technology companies, government agencies, startups, and nonprofits. It's also anchored by major universities Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University.

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The Raleigh-Durham area has continued to grow and attract new residents as a result. Companies flock to the area for its affordability, high quality of life, and technology infrastructure, Veronica Creech, director of the Office of Economic Development and Innovation for the city of Raleigh, told Insider.

Inside the innovation offices of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, working on making the region more equitable as it attracts major tech companies
Veronica Creech.Veronica Creech

Apple recently announced plans to invest $1 billion on a new campus in the Research Park area that will employ 3,000 people in machine learning, artificial intelligence, software engineering, and other tech jobs.

Luring in top tech companies like Apple has a ripple effect across the region since economic development "permeates city boundaries," Creech said.

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"We want to make sure we're positioning ourselves to stimulate and encourage that innovation, so our community gets to be the recipient of such good ideas and new innovations that are on the horizon," she added.

The Raleigh-Durham area is investing in innovation to develop a talented workforce and create equitable communities. Here's a look at some of the cities' biggest projects.

Raleigh is investing in workforce development

The goal of Raleigh's 2021 strategic plan is to grow the city's diverse economy through local partnerships, supporting business and entrepreneurship, leveraging technology, and creating equitable employment opportunities.

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Talent development is crucial for growth. Creech said the region's many higher-education institutions draw people to the area - "We have an opportunity to create a community that wants to make them stay."

The Office of Economic Development and Innovation is also looking for ways to help the region's existing workforce gain the skills, education, and hands-on experience to succeed in the local, mostly tech-focused economy, she said.

Raleigh's strategy also features plans to develop infrastructure that supports expansion, including evaluating downtown parking.

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This year, Raleigh is partnering with Facebook Reality Labs, US Ignite, and local organization RIoT on an augmented-reality challenge, where entrepreneurs and innovators will come up with solutions to some of the city's challenges, such as workforce development.

Community engagement guides city projects. Creech said the city surveys residents every two years to learn what they care about. Responses are passed on to the city council to set priorities and policies.

Durham is using data to overcome human-centered challenges

The city of Durham's Office of Performance and Innovation prioritizes projects in several ways, Ryan Smith, the city's innovation and performance manager, told Insider.

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Inside the innovation offices of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, working on making the region more equitable as it attracts major tech companies
Ryan Smith.Ryan Smith.

Some are assigned by the mayor and city manager. Others come from its strategic plan, which outlines initiatives for spreading innovation across the organization and developing and engaging equitable, diverse communities.

Other projects come from IdeaStarter, a program that encourages city employees to share ideas for improving processes and fostering innovation. Innovate Durham is a partnership program that turns the city into a lab to test new ideas, products, and services to encourage a culture of innovation.

"Innovation is an openness to believing that the things you're doing, even if they're working well, could be done better," Smith said.

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Durham works with partners, including other city agencies, local businesses, universities, and residents, to help the city accomplish its goals, Smith said. The city also uses data to solve human-centered problems and identify the challenges people encounter with city programs and processes.

For instance, the Office of Performance and Innovation worked with the local water utility to reduce the number of late payments and water disconnections in the city, Smith said. That involved looking into why few residents were utilizing the Water Hardship Fund, a city program to help struggling residents pay their bills.

"That was an opportunity to understand the process, both from the side of those who administer it and from the side of residents who are seeking to access it and think about opportunities to design a hardship fund that was better meeting the needs of residents and leading to fewer cutoffs," he said.

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Another program aims to improve economic opportunity for "justice-involved residents," or those with a criminal record or who have been incarcerated. Smith said one barrier to employment is that many in this group have lost their driver's licenses. The city used motor-vehicle and court data to identify thousands of residents who had suspended or revoked licenses, mostly for minor offenses like traffic violations.

Inside the innovation offices of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, working on making the region more equitable as it attracts major tech companies
Former Assistant District Attorney now Superior Court Judge Josephine Kerr Davis working to dismiss over 50,000 old traffic charges preventing people from getting their driver’s license restored.Ryan Smith

Smith said they partnered with the local district attorney and were able to get the offenses dismissed for 35,000 residents, without the person having to appear in court, which enables them to get their driver's licenses back.

Innovation and equity go hand in hand as the region plans for growth

Smith said building communities where business development and innovation are inclusive and equitable starts with involving the people who've been disproportionately impacted by decision-making.

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"One of the things about equity is asking yourself who's at the table and who are you engaging in solving problems?" he said. To find meaningful solutions to problems, cities need to engage stakeholders outside of government - and different problems require different groups of people.

Addressing the digital divide so that all residents, especially those in underserved neighborhoods, have broadband internet access is an issue both Raleigh and Durham are working on. Technology and innovation draw businesses to the region, but some residents have been left out, Noah Otto, Raleigh's smart-city coordinator, told Insider. Raleigh is surveying residents to understand the barriers that they have to internet access.

"Data doesn't stop at Raleigh's jurisdictional boundaries," Otto said. "It goes beyond. We realize we're better together and we strengthen the area. When the area is stronger, all of us do better."

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