Politicians at every level cite the benefits of improving highways and other elements of the infrastructure, but some states are focusing on building their digital infrastructure as a pathway for long-term vibrancy. The State of Illinois has become a herald of this trend as it attempts to create technology-related jobs and revive its moribund economy.
Hardik Bhatt is the man in charge of updating the state’s information superhighway and creating a workforce that’s attuned to the digital age. He’s upgraded computer systems that included hardware from the 1970s, forged many partnerships and modernized strategies that now focus on the cloud and apps.
Now that efficiency has been improved by replacing antiquated systems with cloud connections, the state’s focus is shifting. Illinois wants to become more attractive to entrepreneurs, lure corporations to the state, and hold onto engineers who graduate from its universities.
One key focal point is to ensure that residents have the right skill sets to work in today’s digital economy. Bhatt is focusing on the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), which proponents say will eventually link everything from cars to factory equipment to home appliances.
“We’re working with the IoT Talent Consortium (IoTTC), using IBM and GE to see how we can provide the workforce they need so they can move their companies here,” said Bhatt, chief digital officer, innovation & technology, for the State of Illinois.
Other states are also ramping up their efforts to transition to a 21st century digital economy. Cybersecurity is a top priority of the New Virginia Economy initiative. In Ohio, the governor hopes to create a “chief innovation officer” to help commercialize research done in the state. There’s more activity at the urban level, where a number of cities have initiated smart cities programs, and in regions like North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.
Some industry analysts already view Illinois as a leader in nascent state efforts, partially because it’s gone beyond improving IT offerings to include skills improvement and job creation. The state recently expanded its relationship with the IoTTC, making a number of educational programs created by the consortium and its member companies available to state residents and prison inmates for free. The state also partnered with Microsoft to include some of its coursework in this offering.
These efforts augment the solid standing of the universities in the state, such as Northwestern and the University of Illinois. However, the state’s poor financial health causes many graduates to flee.
“Illinois generates the most engineers in the country, but most of them leave the state,” said Bhatt, who headed Cisco’s Smart Cities project before taking the Illinois job.
Those departures are prompted in large part by government incompetence and corruption – the state hasn’t had a budget for two years, and two of the past four governors were imprisoned. Those and other problems drove the state’s unemployment ranking into the top 10 while depressing the state down into the bottom 10 of most surveys for attractiveness for business investment. It’s not just engineering graduates who are fleeing, Illinois was the dubious leader in state population decline in 2016.
Fostering startups is one way to get young talent to remain in the states. The City of Chicago has a number incubator sites, and the state is ramping up its efforts. The state’s major corporations are helping out by meeting regularly with entrepreneurs
“We have an entrepreneurs showcase with an advisory board, it’s focused on job creation in cybersecurity,” Bhatt said. “We have CIOs and other top people from companies like Boeing and Caterpillar who meet every two months to talk about how we can build the infrastructure and use best practices. Entrepreneurs have access to tremendous leadership, and the companies have access to many entrepreneurs.”
In today’s global economy, it’s important for startups to consider international trade. Partnerships are again the state’s tool of choice for helping companies expand internationally.
“We have formed partnerships with the country of India. That gives our entrepreneur’s access to India, where the government is spending a lot of money,” Bhatt said.
One downside to the IoT is that as more and more nodes are connected online, security risks increase. Hackers may well find that cars and large production sites can be as attractive and lucrative as retail stores and banks. Protecting all the data and equipment connected to the Web will continue to be a huge challenge. Illinois is joining the many entities that are focused on techniques for safeguarding networked systems.
“We want the state to be an enabler for entrepreneurs in new fields like cybersecurity and the IoT,” Bhatt said. “We’re also focusing on ways that Illinois can become the state of choice for employers in these areas.”
Boosting the information technology-related skills of Illinois workers will benefit not just business environment. A full third of the state’s IT staffers are nearing retirement age, so it’s critical that state agencies have access to technically competent workers. Bhatt had to take a different approach to this challenge, since union rules put strict limits on the number of skilled workers who can be hired from the outside. Savvy employees who are nearing retirement are now training co-workers who want to advance.
Terry Costlow has written about technology since the days of the 6 Mbyte hard drive. He’s contributed regularly to EE Times, Automation World, Automotive Engineering International, and IEEE Spectrum, as well as consumer publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Magazine and the Portland Oregonian.