Bruce Lincoln has been at the forefront of technology for more than two decades. He grew up in Lutherville, Md., where his family has lived since 1877. He attended local elementary, junior high, and high schools, and graduated from Princeton University and Columbia University. In 1987 he received the first Ford Foundation Fellowship in Educational Technology. Today he is the cofounder and chief of technology of Silicon Harlem, a technology and innovation hub in Upper New York City. Lincoln recently spoke with The Network Journal, in a wide-ranging interview, from his early work in technology to the launch of Silicon Harlem and its efforts to bring to life its vision of a Harlem at the forefront of technology with the accompanying economic opportunity.
TNJ: Why technology? Why Harlem?
Lincoln: I went to Columbia because I really wanted to get to Harlem. I read about Harlem when I was working on my major papers at Princeton University on the Harlem Renaissance, and it sounded like such an amazing place. When I got there it wasn’t quite the way it was described in Renaissance literature. I called my mom, told her this, and she said, “That’s why you’re there. You now have to take all that you had the benefit of from an educational standpoint and give back.” I taught at a Catholic school in Harlem and went to Columbia at night to choose where I am today – around this idea of technology – as a way to give back.
TNJ: How was your early work a breakthrough for Blacks in technology?
Lincoln: I was committed to this idea of making sure underserved communities are exposed to science and technology, or STEM as we now call it. I developed one of the first software programs for the Macintosh computer on African American inventors. It was designed to drive the Macintosh computer into urban schools and the urban market. It was done from the standpoint of letting people know what we’ve done in technology. I looked at the accomplishments of African-American inventors, going all the way back to technology and Africa.
There’s a history of African-American innovation that has to do with technology all the way up to the space program. African-American inventors played a significant role in a great many of the technologies we now are using, including the Internet and cell phones. That was a CD ROM back in the day. It was interactive multimedia. I worked closely with Ivan Van Sertima, associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University who wrote the book They Came Before Columbus. I also worked closely with John Henrik Clarke, a professor of African history and founder of the African Heritage Studies Association.
TNJ: How has the technology landscape changed since then?
Lincoln: At this particular point in time, we’re looking at distance learning, the use of computers and mobile devices. It kind of culminates in what our focus is now with Silicon Harlem: making sure everyone has access to the next generation of the Internet. 5G is one way to describe the next kind of commercial vehicle for getting people high-speed Internet, but having this type of technology in such a way that it bridges the digital divide. The digital divide is not just the ramification of not having access to the technology at this point because technology really is the driver of opportunity in this society. It’s lack of access to what should be normal aspirations for achievement and advancement, both economically and from a level of prosperity. This drives us from an operational standpoint and even, if you will, from a spiritual and political standpoint.
TNJ: How are you involved in the development of 5G technology?
Lincoln: 5G is the fifth generation wireless protocol. It’s how we would connect to the Internet using the next generation of smart phones. It basically allows for very high-speed access to the Internet and is tied into plans for deploying the Internet of things: driverless cars, etc. So it’s a transformative technology. What it requires is more rooftops. From a physics standpoint it’s faster, but it doesn’t go as far as current technology does. So you have to put more of the little antenna on rooftops so we can reach everyone when you deploy that kind of technology. Then everyone will be able to get online at the fastest speed and you can do things like augmented reality and virtual reality.
We’ve been working closely with companies like T Mobile to make sure that it really helps to bridge the digital divide so that rather than being left behind, we’re at the forefront. To that end, we’re part of a project by the National Science Foundation in which we lead as the community partner. It’s designed to make Harlem the test-bed and place Harlem at the forefront of 5G.
TNJ: How did you meet Silicon Harlem co-founder Clayton Banks?
Lincoln: I met Clayton in 1998. He was setting up a company called Ember Media and I had a large project called the Hologram Dos 2001 Five that I’d received funding for from the federal government. I was at Columbia University as the senior educational technologist at the Research Institute. This particular project focused on making sure that the Internet was connected to community-based organizations, such as the Abyssinian Development Corporation and the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was very important to me, as an African-American in technology, to make sure that I worked with an African-American multimedia fan. That’s how Clayton and I got hooked up. We shared this vision of a Harlem at the forefront of technology, which gave rise to Silicon Harlem.
TNJ: How has Silicon Harlem evolved?
Lincoln: It began in February 2013 at what was called MIST – My Image Studios – a 20,000 square-foot entertainment center. We decided to have a meet-up. We thought there must be at least 30 or 40 Black geeks like ourselves who would show up. Well, 500 people of color showed up. We grew it over the course of a year and then we were able to leverage those relationships to provide consulting relationships. We incorporated in 2014 and we’ve grown the company to where we are today. We have an Innovation Center – co-working spaces we call uptown space. The idea is to make sure that you have a mix of community and advanced technology – all nonprofits and startups – in a setting where we’re incubating new ideas.
TNJ: What is the actual work of Silicon Harlem?
Lincoln: We’re very focused on making sure that everyone is digitally literate. It’s a hands-on opportunity, but also a learning opportunity so that everyone gets exposed to these technologies in a way that creates a comfort level. So we have programs in NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority). We also do programs during the summer as part of Harlem Week, where we work with seniors. We have seniors that we’ve been working with for four years, who, when they first met us, would say, ‘What is this thing with somebody trying to be my friend?’ You know, social media. Now they have laptops and tablets and really informed questions. Last summer we exposed them to virtual reality through a platform called Virtual Harlem, which was developed by a colleague of ours, Dr. Brian Carter. It’s basically the Harlem Renaissance in the virtual reality space.
We also do a children’s festival as a part of Harlem Week, where we expose kids to technology, from drones to Lego robotics. We host a lot of meetups, and meetings specifically about new projects we’re working on. The meetings focus on how the community can have a role in thinking through the ways in which the technology can deploy. So we serve as a facilitator between some of the designers and developers, and the community.
TNJ: Are there thoughts about growing the number of people in STEM in the Black community so that it looms as large in our minds as, say, entertainment?
Lincoln: We’re looking to expand in that area. We’ve just formed a new area in education, called SHAPE (Silicon Harlem Advance Program in Education), where we work with local schools, local nonprofit organizations, and companies, to expose people to skills like computational thinking, digital literacy, robotics, and drones.
TNJ: Any ideas, too, about increasing wealth in the Black community via technology?
Lincoln: One of the reasons why we got involved in this – and because our original focus was on making sure that Harlem became a hub for the tech innovation ecosystem – was because technology and the kind of capital that it attracts really creates wealth. So one of the things you want to do is make sure that increasingly we were a part of the digital economy, from getting jobs in Silicon Alley to attracting technology companies into the community. If you have technology companies in the community, there’s a multiplier effect. They create four to five other jobs, those people go to restaurants, they order services like dry cleaning. So we wanted to try to bring that kind of multiplier and economic effect into the community. That’s still our focus.
What we’re now looking at is the way in which the next generation Internet can really drive economic opportunity. So we formed a new company, called Better B, that’s designed to bring high-speed broadband to the African-American community, and the servers and applications that can make that possible. What’s becoming evident to people is that the Internet as it’s currently configured is inadequate. People do not have enough bandwidth. So everyone has to have broadband, and it is not a luxury but a commodity. One of our incumbents has called it a human brain.
TNJ: What is gigabit Internet and why is Silicon Harlem advocating for it?
Lincoln: It’s that exponential level, very high-speed Internet. It allows you to do all those applications I talked about when I described what 5G makes possible. It can handle all of our video applications – streaming and all that stuff – but it can also handle virtual reality, augmented reality, driverless cars, and it will make the digital divide go away. We want to make sure that underserved communities leapfrog to the next generation high-speed Internet so that we can do all the things that allow for economic opportunity. We want to make sure everyone has a gigabit of speed and we’ve been advocating around that. That’s where the technology and advocacy come together.
TNJ: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work?
Lincoln: It offers us a new line of business – a social business. We recently organized a “Youth Code The Future” program working closely with young people and their families at St. Nicholas Houses, one of the largest NYCHA housing developments in Harlem. We converted the entire program to virtual so the young people work with computers from their home using their home Internet access, which works for the most part. We did that one week ahead of the Department of Education.