How Baltimore is Reimagining City-Owned Assets

At City Summit 2018, 50 cities committed to new initiatives to support their innovation economies. NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems program collects and tracks these commitments in order to showcase successes, identify best practices and connect peer cities who can learn together. Here we share the story of one city’s work:

A new kind of recreation center

“The Digital Divide is getting worse, not better,” warns Digital Harbor Foundation’s Andrew Coy. Since 2013, the foundation Coy helped launch has aggressively sought to close that divide in Baltimore by creating spaces where young people have ready access to technology. The foundation’s method is innovative; it converts underutilized city-owned recreation centers into youth-centered, technology-enabled “maker spaces” through a program called Rec-to-Tech.

Maker spaces are environments that encourage open-ended exploration, tinkering, design, and problem-solving. “The physical spaces — the garage that Larry and Sergei launched Google from or the dorm room where Zuckerberg created Facebook — weren’t available to my students,” Coy says. “Youth in Baltimore can design and make a piece of their world too, but they need the tools to do it.”

Through the NLC Innovation Ecosystem’s Call to Action program, Digital Harbor committed to implementing Rec-to-Tech in four Baltimore recreation centers.

Programs like Rec-to-Tech are much needed in Baltimore. Despite a recent influx of jobs in the information technology and logistics sectors, recent survey data found that 74,000 households in the city were without internet access. Additionally, nearly 30 percent of job seekers said that using computers and technology was a barrier to securing employment. Rec-to-Tech addresses both challenges: It increases access to technology in primarily low-income communities and prepares youth for high-paying jobs in the city’s innovation economy.

From a nascent idea to a national movement

Coy saw an opportunity when the city announced it was closing a handful of its recreation centers in 2013. A teacher at the time, he saw how the neighborhood rec center served as an anchor point for his students and their families.

“Somebody asked me what I would do with [the center],” he recalls. “I said I’d turn it into a tech space with 3D printing, design workshops, laser cutters — a place where youth could explore pathways in technology while developing soft skills like resiliency and grit.”

He had found his calling. Seven years later, Digital Harbor serves 1,200 students a year and provides technical assistance to cities across the country that are implementing similar initiatives. The numbers from the past year alone are impressive: 1,220 hours of technical assistance in 14 different communities that have collectively raised $3.3 million for programming and construction costs.

In Baltimore, Digital Harbor is poised to surpass its NLC commitment to expand Rec-to-Tech to four rec centers. Coy recently signed an MOU with the city of Baltimore to launch programs in six recreation centers by February 2020, and is currently bringing on additional staff to do that work.

Despite the seemingly rapid growth of Rec-to-Tech, Coy says he is committed to building deep, sustainable partnerships with communities and city governments; sometimes that means moving slower. “The old adage – if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together – it’s really true,” he says. “It’s worth spending the time to go further.”

Critical Ingredients for a Rec-to-Tech Program

Cities interested in programs like Rec-to-Tech must recognize that increasing access to technology is not an end in itself. It’s how effectively the technology is used that ultimately leads to positive outcomes. More patents, higher rates of business formation, better representation of women and communities of color in tech — this is what Digital Harbor ultimately measures its success by.

To that end, Coy and his team have identified a handful of key ingredients for a successful deployment of Rec-to-Tech.

  • Underutilized community space. Rec centers often have entire rooms that go unused or have a bank of computers that lack internet access and thus go untouched. Digital Harbor recommends interested communities inventory their community spaces to find a suitable environment for a makerspace.
  • Community-centered approach. As community members are the primary users of the makerspace, they should also be at the center of its design. This means surveying residents, holding community meetings, and incorporating their design priorities into the final plan.
  • Government champion. In cities where Digital Harbor has had the most success, the mayor is highly invested in expanding youth opportunities in tech and has appointed a champion within the city responsible for overseeing the initiative.
  • Highly trained staff. If youth have a poor experience using technology, it’s unlikely they’ll return. It’s critical, therefore, that makerspaces have effective facilitators on-hand to advance student learning.


Berkaw-HeadShot (1)About the Author: Phil Berkaw is a program manager on NLC’s Innovation Ecosystems team.