What makes a place futuristic? Is it dazzling skyscrapers designed by the most in-demand “starchitects?” Perhaps it takes a focused cohort of innovators launching businesses that change the world? Or maybe progressive policies that offer a glimpse of a more equitable and just society? In our efforts to analyze and report on the future of work, we spend a good bit of time imagining the places that will have the biggest impact and where the future will arrive first. We’ve found that William Gibson’s quote from over 25 years ago continues to ring true, “The future is already here, its just not evenly distributed.”
In places all over the world, the future we will come to take for granted has begun. Some in fits and starts. Others with radical reinventions. Places like Silicon Valley and Singapore have served as our glimpse at the future for much of recent history. But thanks to new workers, new technology, and cultural shifts cities like Nairobi, Tallinn, and Shenzhen have begun crafting futures that will impact the world in the years to come. Much like the present, the futures these places are building look quite different from one another. One place that has a reached critical mass of the aforementioned factors and now teeters on the tipping point of the future is Atlanta, Georgia.
Silicon Valley casts a significant shadow in the world of tech and innovation. Atlanta has been operating similar shadows for much of the past 3 decades. In the early 90s, music industry executives left their NY/LA enclaves to set up shop here where they discovered and groomed talent that would go on to have huge impacts on the music charts like Outkast and John Mayer. More recently, film and TV production have similarly immigrated from their traditional west coast locales to put Atlanta on the map as a production hub for a wide variety of content.
These industries have set the stage for Atlanta’s next act as a hotbed for tech, startups, and corporate innovation hubs. Thanks to the infrastructure, educational institutions, and corporate partners already in place, Atlanta is primed to compete on the global stage as one of the key places of the future. Prior to the 90s, Atlanta was a regional player in terms of business and global standing. It didn’t have the cultural cache of Miami, nor the capital and financial standing of New York. But the city was thrust into global awareness after winning a bid to host the 1996 Olympics and hasn’t looked back since. Even with it’s considerable growth, the identity of Atlanta remains in many ways a big city in a small town.
Ground zero for Atlanta’s innovation economy is Tech Square. The area is home to Georgia Tech’s school of business and research labs. Startups and coworking spaces dot the landscape. Interspersed throughout the Square are the corporate innovation hubs and tech centers for the many Fortune 500 companies in the city. And of course, Atlanta staple Waffle House, has an outpost right in the center of it all. While Tech Square represents the epicenter of Atlanta’s Tech infrastructure there are key points throughout the city contributing to its status as a place of the future. Atlanta Tech Village, in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood, is the fourth largest tech hub in the country and houses about 300 tech companies. Switchyards operates downtown and caters entrepreneurs with a B2C focus. Ponce City Market is a redeveloped Sears Roebuck building also located downtown that plays host to one of the finest food halls in the city and a mix of tech & design companies.
The tech scene workforce is bolstered by twin drivers of development, higher education and corporate presence. Atlanta is home to the Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the top engineering schools in the country and a hotbed for tech talent. Georgia State University, which ranks as the second-most innovative school in the country according to US News, also calls Atlanta home. The Atlanta campus of Savannah College of Art & Design, Emory University (in neighboring Decatur), and the Atlanta University Center round out the list of local schools feeding into the city’s creative class of workers. According to CBRE, Atlanta ranks 7th nationally in tech degree attainment. But a thriving innovation scene requires more than just scrappy students. Thanks to a clustering of Fortune 500 companies, Atlanta also has the benefit of ample experienced talent. As seasoned vets tire of corporate working environments, they have found landing spots within the city’s burgeoning startup economy.
Atlanta has long been a bastion of creativity, but the creative class is having a particularly bright moment now and for the foreseeable future. While the city lacks iconic architectural elements and buildings, abandoned warehouses and rail yards are in ample supply. These structures are being repurposed all across the city as housing and workspaces for the makers, designers, coders, and creators that continue to propel the city. In combination with development of entirely new buildings and complexes, the city is set to undergo significant transformation in the years to come. All necessary to accommodate the swelling population and surfeit of opportunity.
Ever since the city’s founding as “Terminus,” a hub for rail lines, Atlanta has always been a place of coming and going. That legacy of transportation expertise is most apparent in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Atlanta’s airport is the busiest in the world for passenger traffic and by many accounts, among the easiest to navigate. Such accessibility further facilitates the growth in global commerce and investment opportunities. Unfortunately that ease of movement does not translate to the city’s streets. Atlanta ranks among the worst cities in the country for traffic congestion, thanks in large part to lack of funding and resources for public transportation due to handicapping in the legislative halls of local government. Traffic has long been a bane for residents of Atlanta. It is one of a handful of challenges that could derail the city from becoming one of the key places of the future for tech and innovation. Along with commute times, the biggest challenges facing Atlanta are income inequality, access to affordable housing, and planning for increased automation in the workforce. And if the city is not careful, the cultural pioneers that lend Atlanta its cool will be priced out of the city altogether. Thus stalling out the engine of innovation currently driving growth.
Thankfully, a number of programs are in place to mitigate or eliminate the issue altogether. The Center for Workforce Innovation launched in early 2019 and provides jobs training for high demand careers. The program is funded by the city along with Delta, The Home Depot, SunTrust and other locally-based corporations. The Westside Works program focused on training and career development for Atlanta’s westside residents, near Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Techbridge offers technology and business education for unemployed or underemployed adults across the metro area.
Atlanta is emerging as a place of the future thanks to strong ratings in Culture, Talent Pool, and ascending Tech scene. The thriving music and film industries in Atlanta easily make it the epicenter of cool in America. The major players in those industries have begun lending their cultural cache to the tech scene as investors, mentors, and partners at startups and accelerators. This creative milieu is best exemplified by the A3C Festival & Conference held every October. The event brings together serves as an opportunity for startup founders to rub elbows with musicians and coders to connect with filmmakers.
The future being forged in Atlanta is one of inclusivity and technological creativity, wrapped in a layer of cultural magnetism that continues to draw new arrivals. The key to Atlanta’s continued success in tech and innovation is the unprecedented level of diversity the scene exhibits there. While Silicon Valley has 6.4% rate of participation for underrepresented minorities in its tech workforce, Atlanta boasts a rate of more than 25%. This environment acts as a magnet, drawing in more minority founders, developers, and product owners as they grow burned out by SV’s state of homogeneity. This is a key component for businesses seeking success in a global, diverse market. Tristan Walker recently relocated his Walker & Co brand ( purveyors of grooming products for minority consumers) to Atlanta. Walker’s name shows up in the headlines, but his departure mirrors that of others from Silicon Valley that are seeking more familiarity in their social circles. Those leaving the Bay Area are also seeking cheaper accommodations. Atlanta isn’t the cheapest place to live, but it ranks quite well among peer cities. Among the 15 largest metro areas in the USA, only three are cheaper than Atlanta. And among cities with significant corporate office presence, Atlanta has considerably low rent cost for office space.
The past is always tense, the future perfect. This sentiment from author Zadie Smith aptly encapsulates the Atlanta experience. Atlanta’s history is wrought with inequality and fights to combat it. That fight persists in some ways into the present, namely through uneven access to the future of work. The diverse leaders shaping the conversation are working to change that and serve as an example for other places that want to embrace the innovation economy with inclusive and equitable benefits for all community stakeholders. As the tech ecosystem continues to grow, its influence approaches that of the city’s entertainment and cultural exports. Atlantan’s always knew they’d be shaping the future. Now, the rest of the world is catching up.