May 2, 2019

Digital Empowers Regional Forum: Charlotte


Digital Empowers explores how cross-sector partnerships leverage technology to bring greater access and equity to individuals and communities. 

On March 13, 2019, the Digital Empowers campaign held its second regional forum in Charlotte, North Carolina. The event convened government stakeholders, business and community leaders, and innovators across the Carolinas to discuss key issues concerning industry and technology. Evolving as a smart region, human-centered design ingenuity, and digital inclusion emerged as the priority areas for social impact. 

Key Takeaways

  • Innovating and establishing cross-sector partnerships in regional smart telecommunications and utility infrastructure has implications for significant development as greater access to accurate information relates to economic growth, environmental awareness, and sustainability, as well as access to continued innovation and inclusion for all. 
  • Cross-sector partners need to incorporate the human perspective, tendency, and need into the technological design can bring greater impact and foster stronger communities. 
  • The prosperity generated by technological advances will be limited if it is not paired with education and inclusion. 

Why Charlotte

Innovation happens best in a vibrant, healthy ecosystem, as in Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city. The metropolitan area ranks among the highest in the U.S. in employment grown in the tech industry. In 2018, IT employment has grown 50%, adding nearly 14,000 technology jobs. Yet the region still struggles with economic mobility—with Charlotte ranking last among the nation’s 50 major cities. In response to this, organizations like the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance and the North Carolina Technology Association, Queen City Fintech, and UNC Charlotte Research and Economic Development focus their efforts on creating and supporting an ecosystem that encourages and expands opportunity, innovation, and partnerships so that everyone benefits from the solutions technology brings.

Building Smart Regions Through Smart Solutions

A solution to drive access to economic opportunities in Charlotte lies in greater investments in smart telecommunications and the utilities infrastructure. Speakers discussed the importance of building a region based on technological advances that collect and utilize data to optimize resources, time, and results. One upcoming development that promises to further Charlotte’s smart city evolution is an innovation and retail center created through Envision Charlotte. This public-private partnership between the city of Charlotte, Duke Energy, and other stakeholders uses technology and data to divert waste, conserve energy, and create jobs through new investments. Others, like the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), are leveraging data gathered from commuter patterns and usage to adjust transit options and serve unmet needs, like the CATS partnership with Lyft on a First/Last Mile program.

Companies that conduct business throughout the greater Charlotte area are also developing smart solutions to support some of the region’s predominant industries: agriculture, soil, and land management. For example, provides real-time information on soil and weather conditions so that farmers can determine opportune times for planting and harvesting crops. Still, to bring these solutions to rural communities and users, there must be access to connectivity. Google Fiber has made significant investments in the Carolina region, providing the infrastructure backbone, to enable farmers to increase yields, to monitor water usage for groundskeepers, and increase the quality of life for rural residents. 

Inspiring Interaction: Human-Centered Design

The way technology is designed can have a significant effect on social impact. Forum speakers discussed the industry’s focus on developing holistic, human-centered technology, which puts people first—embracing human behavior and tendencies. Specifically, these innovators leverage augmented and virtual reality, mixed reality, and games to support education and workforce development, health and wellness, psychology and behavior, and institutional change. 

Innovators, for instance, at RTI International use a virtual simulation that enables users to connect in real time, deliberate, and solve problems. This reinforces the collaborative strategies critical to drive organizational missions and encourages collaboration and greater connectedness between teams. Similarly, Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP has developed a simulation exercise, incorporating soft skills and professional development lessons to build stronger teams. Design features, like avatars, are used in bias training, testing the users’ preconceived notions about communication styles, appearance, and organizational hierarchy that may occur within their workplace environment and limit innovation and growth. Smart Games Systems also uses avatar-based simulations to support doctors, nurses, and midwives, who depend on collaborative decision making for positive patient outcomes. 

There is great potential for these projects and programs to scale—educating employees and students, as well as saving organization’s time and, often, costly resources. Finsophy has created a platform that enables companies to explore and innovate further, through empowering banking customers in the Charlotte region and beyond to invest in social and environmental projects, thereby catalyzing the impact through financial support. 

Promoting Economic Mobility Through Digital Inclusion

For the Carolinas, fostering greater economic prosperity is directly tied to greater digital inclusion. A two-pronged approach to digital inclusion was highlighted—create greater access to technology for those in the Charlotte region and provide them with digital literacy and skills to improve their access to jobs in the next-generation workplace and a better standard of living. 

Access to education is a key tenet of digital inclusion. Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont offers computer and technology education and essential skills training to people without access, bringing awareness and providing access to diverse and higher paying jobs. In 2018, more than 11,000 people were enrolled in these programs. For students in this area, Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS’) GoIT program shows students how human-centered design and empathy can be harnessed to solve real-world problems. And through the company’s signature program, “IgniteMyFuture in School” created in partnership with Discovery Education, computational thinking principles are taught in a way that empowers students and enables them to better understand computer science. 

Mentorship is a critical complement to education in under-resourced communities to bridge this digital divide, both for its residents and the organizations that serve them. Informative Technologies works with students, school systems, and families to not only provide them with access to affordable computers through the company’s E-Waste collection service but also the hands-on STEM training and skills training needed to repurpose and utilize their new devices. The region’s nonprofits also find themselves lacking the capacity to serve most people in need. Organizations like Apparo work to create a vibrant, technology-enabled community through connecting nonprofits to corporate volunteers. The nonprofit receives access to IT education and training, and affordable IT solutions that they need to effectively achieve their missions.