D.C. creates free incubator space, but there's just one catch

Library looking for people who, in exchange for access to Dream Lab co-working spaces, will share their expertise for one hour a month

WASHINGTON - In the downtown of the nation's capital, there is a magnificent building of steel and glass that is now home to what may be a remarkable tech experiment.

The D.C. Public Library took an 11,000-square-foot space and installed 80 computers, including 16 Macs. A 3D printer was added as well as a machine that can print and bind a book from a file in just minutes. There are tablets of all types -- Android, Windows, Apple -- and e-reading devices, available to try out. It opened last week.

There are also glass-enclosed meeting rooms, and areas for large classes and meetings. There are large Web-enabled, interactive systems for displaying material to an audience. It's modern, professional and free to use.

The entire space was designed to conform with the historical requirements of this Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, an approximately 400,000-square-foot structure.

This tech center space, called the Digital Commons, was renovated. The HVAC system was upgraded to handle the heat from the systems. Electrical outlets are abundant. There are also numerous work station areas where people can plug in their own systems.

And silence? Not in this space. Do you need to make a phone call to participate in a conference call or interview someone while you type away? No problem. Within the Commons, are incubator spacesthat are free to use, in a space called the Dream Lab. But its users must be willing to share a little of their expertise with the broader community, that's the only catch and it's a seemingly modest one.

"This is a different way of doing what we have always been doing," said Ginnie Cooper, the district's chief librarian.

Many of the people using the terminals may not have access to computers at home. But that's just part of the mix of people from all walks.

Libraries, with their resources, have always been helping people improve themselves, find a job and start a business. What's changed are the tools and methods, said Cooper.

People interested in becoming part of the Dream Lab's co-working, collaboration space fill out an application and provide an explanation about their start-up idea, as well as a link to a Web page or LinkedIn profile.

The bar for admission to the Dream Lab "is set very low," said Cooper. "But we want to make sure that people understand the requirement of being part of the giving, as well as part of the taking and using."

Digital Commons at the D.C. Public Library
Nicholas Kerelchuk is manager of the Digital Commons at the D.C. Public Library. (Photo: Patrick Thibodeau/Computerworld)

One thing the library will be looking for are people who, in exchange for access to the Dream Lab co-working spaces, are willing to share their expertise for one hour a month and offer a class. The goal is to foster an environment of collaboration and sharing among the people using the lab, said Cooper.

The library is already offering classes in 3-D Printing, Photoshop CS6, Digital Painting, and Illustrator, among others.

Cooper believes that the types of instruction and level of complexity, such as mobile app development, will increase as the Dream Lab grows, but also as businesses realize what the library is doing. Cooper is open to any type of instruction, and hopes the tech community responds.

Asked if instruction might include help on using Salesforce, or navigating cloud services and pricing -- Cooper nods vigorously. They want to offer as much as possible, she said.

The library is also building a development pipeline through a partnership with 1776, an incubator platform with offices near the White House. The library expects to be working with very early stage efforts.

If these initial efforts can go far enough, the expectation is that they may need more advanced support. That's where 1776 can step in.

Donna Harris, the co-founder of the 1776 incubation platform, said their service provides workspace "but more importantly access to a community and connections." There are 150 firms using this space, she said.

The 1776 incubator is for those who have already fleshed-out their idea and are now at the stage of commercializing and scaling, said Harris. Their resources "are meant to help companies think about a high-growth trajectory," she said.

Harris sees the library helping the "entrepreneurial curious" explore their options and discover how they can get started on the path to developing a business. She believes there are thousands of people harboring ideas for a businesses, "and the library becomes a point of entry for them."

The library's available tools include four licenses for the Adobe Creative Suite running on Macs, said Nicholas Kerelchuk, manager of the Digital Commons.

Use of the 3D printer is open to anyone, and the only charge is for materials. Printing out a copy of the Washington Monument (which someone did) is probably less than $2.

"We have always been a provider of education, it doesn't matter what that education is," Kerelchuk said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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