Innovation. We hear about it a lot, especially with the proliferation of gadgets and apps that has followed the rise of mobile technology. It’s tossed around so much in Arizona’s economic narrative that we easily lose sight of its basic meaning: the introduction of something new.
It seems everyone is hungry to be the bringer of innovation, but few are the ones who can channel its power.
Struggling with finances as our residents and local governments may be, the East Valley is rich with talent, ambition and fertile imagination. We’re a hub of invention and reinvention, even as we hold to the independent western traditions and values that have defined us for so long.
Gangplank in Chandler is one avatar of this spirit. Far from the traditional technology hubs of Silicon Valley and the Northeast Coast, a collaborative workspace took root in the desert, and it’s managed to draw creative types from all over this sprawling Valley. After just three years, Gangplank has plans for branching out into the West Valley and Tucson and, eventually, points beyond.
The forces behind this never asked what it means to do business in Arizona — they charted their own course, and others followed. Recently Gangplank was honored as the only Arizona organization on Entrepreneur magazine’s list of “100 Brilliant Companies,” recognized for offering a free workspace for laptop-toting freelancers that packs in mentoring, weekly presentations and workshops. It’s one of the Tribune’s “local treasures” in the annual East Valley Guide, and the proud bearer of an economic development agreement with the City of Chandler.
Gangplank remains inspiring even as one prominent tenant prepares to move on: The nonprofit engineers and artists’ workshop HeatSync Labs now has a lease in downtown Mesa — a reinvention tale that’s still being written. The “hackerspace” is just one new Main Street resident, along with the Royale cinema, relying on the community to fund their efforts to make a more fun and slightly funky new downtown a reality, channeling the spirit of Tempe’s Mill Avenue when it was more bohemian. They’re seeking donations and holding creative fundraisers (the Royale just Saturday held a screening of the ’90s cult classic “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” with all proceeds benefiting the new arts venue). There’s even a Royale painting party today. A constellation of creativity is flourishing, but it can’t happen without community involvement and a tech-savvy wave of grassroots support.
And then there are those who are reaching for the stars in a more literal way.
Our cash-strapped government is ready to close the book on a turbulent era of space exploration, seeking to turn the reins over at last to private industry. But it’s not just the playground of celebrity billionaires — one prototype for a new generation of manned spacecraft is taking shape in an east Mesa home’s workshop. Morris Jarvis is jockeying for a spot in the next space race, even while working a day job at Chandler’s technology showpiece, Intel.
“It’s the next Silicon Valley, if you ask me,” Jarvis told the Tribune. “All of the rich guys are trying to do it, so there is some kind of interest there.”
He’s got the right idea — he just needs the backing to make it happen, one of those “rich guys” who is willing to embrace a 21st century mindset and invest in creativity and imagination.
We’ve been so used to looking down that there are few who have the courage to look upwards, and those who do are dismissed as mere dreamers. But there’s nothing “mere” about it. Arizona’s greatest asset isn’t its generally mild weather, or its corporate tax breaks and Fortune 500 companies, or even its unharnessed solar wealth. It’s the innovation that comes from the creative people who somehow are drawn to bring their ideas here despite the punishing summers and divisive politics. We have no tall ships, but plenty of clear skies with stars to steer by, and the boldness to reach out for them.