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Study looks at area’s potential

From Microsoft to Candy Bouquet of Little Rock, a significant number of large, and very large, industries had their beginnings in garages. Individuals working with what they had to produce a livelihood for themselves and, ultimately, thousands of others. A recent Metroplan study looked at how towns and cities could tap into that reservoir of potential economic development.

Metroplan is a voluntary association of local governments with members in five counties of the six-county metro area. Lonoke County, Austin, Cabot, Lonoke and Ward are Metroplan members.

From the Metroplan Economic Review and Outlook, December 2013, economic development and entrepreneurship, prepared by Jonathan Lupton, Lynn Bell and Judy Watts:

A recent Brookings Institution study ranked U.S. metropolitan areas by their share of patents issued per capita.

The analysis demonstrated that the largest metros, and those with large research industries and entrepreneurial cultures, produced the most patents and saw commensurate gains in income.

By this measure, the Central Arkansas region did not rank well.

The region’s job mix and anecdotal evidence suggest that Central Arkansas has some work to do building the kind of entrepreneurship culture it needs in order to build prosperity in coming decades.

On the other hand, investors know that buying an under-valued stock can be one of the fastest ways to build a portfolio.

Local weakness can also be an opportunity, and there are positive signs that Central Arkansas is building an entrepreneurial culture.

The region’s comparatively low cost structure, coupled with average to above-average education levels, suggests potential synergy.

Efforts are afoot, like the Argenta Innovation Center and the Little Rock Technology Park, to lay the groundwork for innovation within the region’s promising urban nodes.

But how to make innovation happen? Human creativity is baffling, unpredictable, and often eccentric in nature. Innovation cannot be forced, but supportive space and a collaborative, creative culture can encourage it.

This is what the Argenta Innovation Center (AIC) aims to do. It is an innovation hub, the brainchild of local leaders who understand how key ideas like “open-source” and the emerging “sharing economy” will be foundational for the economic future.

Three components will reside together in one building, sharing resources and expertise: 1. The Silver Mine will be an informal co-work and idea-sharing space; 2. Art Connection, already in action, pays selected students to generate art, learn working skills, and prepare themselves for the sort of education they will need; 3. Launch Pad will provide space and equipment for aspiring inventors with full-time, part-time, and visiting memberships, addressing the key needs of innovators.

Launch Pad addresses the general need for “maker space,” where an aspiring inventor can play with components and techniques, recognizing that the typical invention improves through refinement and rework; the typical creative person with an idea hasn’t nailed down every detail of turning it into a workable prototype; that innovators and hobbyists often lack specialized equipment.

The AIC will make 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other specialized software and equipment available to members.

For their part, members must be willing not just to learn from others, but must also agree to share their own knowledge and expertise.

The Argenta Innovation Center is building corporate partnerships with local tech firms.

AIC puts a major emphasis on helping young people to make connections from skills, hobbies and interests to real-world jobs. In a hierarchy-free learning environment, teenage “techies” may find themselves teaching adults. Placing teenagers with adults in such a manner can help them learn self-confidence, turning existing aptitudes into lucrative career opportunities.

The Argenta Innovation Center is already collaborating with private donors, and local governments that recognize and support the emerging creative economy. The use of co-work space, in easy walking distance of restaurants, entertainment, and shops in downtown Argenta, has the potential to brush aside institutional barriers that stifle creativity and innovation in more traditional settings.

AIC has ambitious dreams for expansion, and despite its urban setting there is ample space for future development.

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