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SSTI Editorial: Embracing Change: Analysis of Maine's Laptop Victory

April 05, 2002

One of the biggest obstacles many communities and states face to building tech-based economies is convincing traditional businesses, institutions and the general population to embrace change, technological advance, and innovation. A common element of many strategic plans is at least one recommendation or even an entire report dedicated to changing perceptions of the community or state toward being a technology mecca — or at least getting people to think about and recognize the importance of science and technology investments. [See the 6/23/00 issue of the SSTI Weekly Digest for an article on a related report from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology.]

Perhaps the "paradigm problem" reaches its most daunting levels in economies that have traditionally been agricultural- and natural resource-based. Often with low percentages of residents holding bachelors degrees or higher and with many people earning less than the national average, less populated areas face myriad challenges toward building tech-based futures.

Key ingredients to turning the corner or making progress — keys that have application or opportunity for replication in every state and community — were demonstrated vividly in the March 25-31 issue of mainescience.org, the exceptional e-newsletter of the Maine Science & Technology Foundation [Archive and free subscription information is available at: http://www.mainescience.org]

Among the week's top S&T stories in a recent issue of the newsletter was a clipping from the Lewiston Sun Journal reporting that the state legislature had approved $25 million in funding over the next two years to provide laptop computers for each of 19,000 seventh and eighth graders in Maine. More telling of the state's commitment to the New Economy is Maine was facing a $250 million deficit when the legislature began its work on the FY 2003 budget.

One of the keys for a successful tech-based economic development strategy is strong leadership, and Maine is a prime example. A large part of what is helping turn Maine into a stronger, more economically diversified state is the leadership and vision of its Governor, Angus King. Gov. King first called for the state to purchase computers for every single 7th and 8th grader in 2000. The intent, as well as improving the quality of their education, was to help the students embrace the importance of technology in their futures. An underlying goal was to change the mindset of the students and their parents, when the students took the computers home to do homework and research.

Some skepticism and opposition led to a two-year delay and some watering-down of the original idea, but the Governor's conviction and the statewide discussion that ensued after his first unveiling of the initiative have helped push Maine into a better position to face a knowledge-based future.

Of course, there are no guarantees that the initiative will work; in this field, there never are. The key is Maine's willingness to take the risk and embrace change — to address the paradigm problem head-on.

But are the lessons of Maine's laptop victory transferable to other states?

At least 20 states, including Maine, will have new governors as a result of the elections this fall. An additional 18 governors are running for re-election, some in tight races. Throughout the last five decades of state efforts in tech-based economic development, top-level leadership have been the driving force for innovation in policy and practice. Success doesn't follow from any specific political persuasion or geographic alignment, but from the contagious enthusiasm or zeal of a strong leader to embrace the change required to keep pace with and participate fully in an economy driven by scientific advancement and technological progress.

SSTI asks the tech-based economic development community — state and local programs, the universities, the businesses, the organizations, the associations, the tech councils, and individuals — in the 38 states with gubernatorial elections: are you doing what needs to be done to ensure your next leader possesses the vision and conviction to welcome and embrace change?