SOUTH BEND — It’s another cold, gray and snowy day in northern Indiana.
But the gloom of late winter is overcome by the polished concrete floors, modern furnishings and abundance of natural light streaming into the city’s new 12,500-square-foot Technology Resource Center.
There’s a subdued energy inside this new office.
In one area, small groups and individuals are taking advantage of the center’s new community space; they’re buried in their laptops or quietly chatting in deference to those around them. And in a nearby classroom, some city employees are going through some new software training.
“The community side is bookable for startups, nonprofits, schools and mission-driven efforts,” said Denise Linn Riedl, the city’s chief innovation officer who also oversees the new space. The other half of the new space will be used by the city and its partners.
“Organizations might want to use the space for off-site training, meetings or other purposes.”
Even private businesses could use the public space for outreach or mission-driven works, Riedl said, explaining that an internet provider might, for example, want to offer free classes on how to avoid phishing scams and other basic elements of cybersecurity.
“The vision for the TRC is to build an inclusive ecosystem where education, government and the private sector can come together to solve problems, develop ideas and grow tech skills in the community,” said Mayor James Mueller.
It’s hoped that as tech jobs are being created in the future, the efforts of the TRC and other initiatives will result in an available pool of people able to assume those jobs. “A key goal would be to democratize technology,” Mueller said of the effort to boost technology skills throughout the community.
That overarching goal is clear in the TRC’s mission statement: “All will be welcome to the TRC to learn about technology and data, gain skills, and co-build an inclusive tech future for South Bend.”
Just across the hallway from the city’s new office, workers are building out the new home for South Bend Code School, which aims to introduce young people to the fundamentals of computer programming, computer science and problem solving.
Some of those students might go on to pursue studies in those fields and return to jobs in their hometown, but all will gain tech skills that will be increasingly in demand in the future.
Though part of the mission of the TRC is to build the skills necessary to work in an increasingly tech-based world, others are already working on today’s problems, looking to use data and analytics to improve city services, make more efficient use of resources and even identify areas that can improved.
The effort to develop the TRC in the Catalyst Two building at Ignition Park got underway a couple of years ago with $2.7 million from the city’s Redevelopment Commission, but interest in using data to improve the city began many years prior — when Santiago Garces was hired on a contract basis in 2013 and was named the city’s first chief innovation officer in 2015.
Riedl became the city’s innovation officer when Garces was hired away by Pittsburgh to start a similar municipal office in Pittsburgh. Despite its relatively modest size, South Bend is actually regarded as a leader in looking for tech and data solutions to improve services, Riedl said.
“We punch above our weight class,” she said.
Working with fellows from the enFocus program and tapping into other talents in the community, the Department of Innovation & Technology already has had a considerable number of successes.
A two-year study determined that a relatively small number of people were making a disproportionate number of 911 calls, said Caleb Bauer, a spokesman for the mayor’s office.
That work resulted in the hiring of a community paramedic who was able to investigate and ultimately reduce a considerable number of persistent calls by connecting those people to community and medical resources.
Maybe someone needed a primary care physician to help them solve a medical issue; maybe someone needed rails in their bathroom to prevent falls.
“The community paramedic aims to understand people’s needs and solve problems,” Bauer explained, adding that the program has resulted in nearly an 80% decline in emergency room visits for the top group of 911 callers.
And beyond reducing unnecessary risks for the city’s first responders, it’s been estimated that the program has removed about $1 million in unnecessary expenses to hospitals, the city and other stakeholders in the community, Bauer said.
Additional work by the Department of Innovation & Technology resulted in a Bloomberg Challenge grant to work on solving transportation issues that are often cited as a key barrier to full employment for those who can’t afford a dependable car.
The grant has allowed the city to work with the University of Notre Dame and other employers on ride-sharing services to help get people to work, and is looking for ways to make the program sustainable and replicable.
Bauer said other projects have boosted the efficiency of departments to allow resources to be diverted to other areas that need attention or have aimed to use data to tackle issues like sidewalks, water shutoffs and even police recruiting.
An upcoming citywide survey, input from the city’s 311 service portal and feedback from departments all give the Department of Innovation & Technology an ongoing supply of issues where it can use data and analytics to improve efficiency or help solve problems.
Those employees, called the Business Analytics Team, as well as some partners are located in the other half of the new office in Ignition Park. Members of the city’s Civic Innovation and Business Development offices will also maintain a presence at the new Technology Resource Center where officials might be able to meet with prospective tenants and developers interested in the growing Renaissance District on the south side of downtown.
There are already hundreds of tech-related jobs in the complex, and visitors will notice the new 83,000-square-foot office that Press Ganey is building just west of the new city office or the ongoing development of the nearby Studebaker complex.
It’s not hard to imagine those tech employees networking and collaborating in the city’s community space or at the restaurants and other amenities that will eventually take notice of the growing area.
“It’s a good front door to show off what’s happening in South Bend,” Riedl said.