A grassroots advocacy movement called Tech Bloc launched in San Antonio on May 19. Hundreds of supporters overwhelmed Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery at the Pearl. Tech Bloc announced its first three short-term goals: 1) bring back rideshare, 2) build an online resource to connect the city’s tech sector, and 3) prepare for the next “damn good” event.
More than 1,300 people joined the movement that day, online and in person, adding to the extensive list of founding members. Updates on the above goals 1 and 2 will be provided during the fruition of goal 3, when San Antonio native Robert Hammond, co-founder of the Friends of the High Line in New York, will speak at the next Tech Bloc gathering on Aug. 11 at the Pearl Stable. Hammond is slated to talk about a number of local topics and projects including San Pedro Creek’s redevelopment, Hemisfair, the Mission Reach, and the renovations of the Rand Building – Geekdom’s relatively new headquarters.
Admission is free and there will be complimentary food, wine, and beer. In accordance with May’s extremely successful – and crowded – event, organizers are working on contingency plans for overflow accommodations. They’re also asking people to RSVP here.
The event also will serve as a platform to announce three new goals for its members and followers – called Tech Bloc “allies.” Not that the first three are considered closed or complete, but it’s time that more initiatives are added to the mix for its growing army of allies to dive into, said Marina Gavito, Tech Bloc’s new executive director, provided by Rackspace.
Rideshare, Geekdom, online resources, are obvious technological connections. But what business does a technology organization have hosting an event about public space?
“Everything,” said Tech Bloc board member David Heard. “Study after study after study shows the young tech creative talent in this country is gravitating towards communities that have high rankings in urban livability.”
A city could have all the office space in the world for tech companies, but if that city lacks a combination of progressive amenities – like walkability, private and public transportation options, a culinary scene, cocktail culture, affordable and urban housing – then that city has ignored the needs of a billion-dollar industry’s workforce.
Heard, chief marketing officer of SecureLogix, is one of six members of the Tech Bloc board which was solidified during the last 71 days since its launch. Bureaucratic processes and titles are things that Tech Bloc, in general, wants to avoid in order to allow for an approachable sense of transparency for members new and seasoned, Heard said. But you can’t have a nonprofit organization without a board – a formal process for its 501(3)c status is now underway.
Tech Bloc wants to remain a community led effort, he explained. “This was really a grassroots coming together, but at some point we need to formalize ourselves with a leadership agenda. … We can all change our backyards through both informal (like nonprofit/community organizations’) and formal (like the City’s) processes.”
Other board members include Lew Moorman (chair), former Rackspace President; David Spencer (treasurer), Pryor Medical Devices president and CEO; Lorenzo Gomez III, 80/20 Foundation and Geekdom executive director; Brad Parscale, president of Giles-Parscale; and Tom Cuthbert, founder and former CEO of Adometry.
So…what has Tech Bloc been doing for the past 71 days?
It’s way more than parties and beer.
Tech Bloc allies – though they could just as easily be called “comrades” if they want to stick with their Soviet Union-esque logo – have been organizing into different working groups depending on their skills and interests. While participation isn’t a requirement of membership – Gavito has found that there is no lack of ambition or willingness to help. From local governments and corporations to startups, local attorneys, and accountants, “anybody and everybody has been reaching out to us, wondering ‘how can we plug in?’” Gavito said.
“These are not folks that say, ‘somebody ought to go fix that,’” she added. “They want to fix it (themselves).”
Now it’s just a matter of coordinating this swell of community support. Gavito has led this effort alongside several board members and volunteers. Because Tech Bloc is a nonprofit, Rackspace is able to essentially “donate” its former senior manager to work full-time as executive director of Tech Bloc. Three different sub-committees have been formed by allies to achieve the first three goals laid out on Day 1.
The Big One: Bringing Back Rideshare
Rideshare has become a rallying point for the tech community in San Antonio, but before Tech Bloc, there wasn’t a unified front to represent it. Yes, transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft are officially technology companies – but they’re also providing what many see as a public amenity: another transportation option.
“We don’t pretend to be the only game in town,” Heard said of Tech Bloc’s behind-the-scenes nature of facilitating connections. “We don’t see ourselves as the leader of this issue or the ones that have the keys to the solution … we’re more of a silent partner for all the stakeholders.”
Tech Bloc has been involved in the ongoing negotiations between City and rideshare company officials for a pilot program that would allow transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft to operate in San Antonio. Members of both teams are optimistic that a deal will be reached and voted on by City Council this summer, but questions about background check legitimacy still loom heavy over the process. The question is whether an agreement can be reached by Aug. 13, when the pilot program proposal is slated for full review and possible vote by City Council.
(Read more: Rideshare and Lone Star Rail Courting City Council)
“We don’t care how (our goals) get done or who takes the credit,” Gavito said.
During the negotiations, Uber has brought some data to the table to demonstrate safety aspects of its platform – a pretty big step for a company that has adamantly protected its data in previous discussions, Heard said.
“It’s not about building a brand (for Tech Bloc), it’s about making the right things happen,” Heard added. “We don’t have any decision-making power to make it happen, but we’re connecting the (ones that do).”
The rideshare standoff is an example of Tech Bloc’s mantra, “Activating SA Tech,” and a kind of framework for what kind of goals the board and membership will be setting in the future.
If a project is already “activated” and up and running, then its unlikely Tech Bloc will take up its cause, Heard said. “We need to find something that doesn’t have a sponsor or (organized) support.”
Perhaps the San Antonio-Austin commuter rail (the LSTAR), or Google Fiber, or municipal broadband. “We’re figuring out what we should chew off,” he said, careful not to say what’s next.
“We’re not jumping on any bandwagons,” Gavito added. “We need to be deliberate and methodical about we focus on.”
We’ll see what Tech Bloc decides to chew off next on Aug. 11.
Developing a Tech Deck
Right now, Tech Bloc is in a “relationship building stage” of development and connecting dots between resources and allies, Gavito said. The “Tech Deck” will be unveiled during the event, an online directory of industry companies, educational resources, people and organizations to follow, event calendars, and more.
“This is foundation-level stuff – getting the basic ingredients in place to get us somewhat up to par to what other communities have when luring and retaining tech talent,” Heard said. There may already be something out there trying to provide this, but “if it does exist, most people don’t know where to find it.”
The website will be an evolving, “living, breathing site” that will be constantly updated and searching for new entries.
Plan more “Kickass” Events
Attending this event is one way of participating in Tech Bloc, becoming a member and signing up for its email updates is another. Tech Bloc plans on hosting two to three large rallies each year – that will follow the same 1-2-3 format of goal updating and setting – as well as smaller, more issue-targeted get-togethers between those, Heard said.
“Sometimes just showing up is a contribution,” Heard said. “Part of our mission is communicating to City Hall the weight behind the industry – to rally in mass form, the physicality of all that becomes (hard to) ignore.”
There will be giveaways of new T-shirts and Tech Bloc memberships at the free event. Music will be provided by DJ Phro.
“Being successful in getting 800 people in one space is one thing,” he said. “It’s a whole ‘nother thing to get there and generate the right energy and attitude in response to your message.”
*Featured/top image: Tech Bloc’s call to action was stuffed into pint glasses that guests were encouraged to take home during the organization’s launch on May 19, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.