Silicon Harlem NextGen Conference Stresses “Access & Exposure”

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Clayton Banks (l.), co-founder, Silicon Harlem, and Al Taylor, New York Assemblyman, 71st District, on the Red Carpet at Silicon Harlem's 6th Annual Next Gen Tech Conference Photo courtesy of Silicon Harlem

Silicon Harlem chose the theme “World 4.0: Let’s Get Ready!” for its 6th Annual NextGen Conference this year, putting emphasis on the idea held by tech industry insiders that the world is now in the midst of a fourth Industrial Revolution.

The day-long conference, which took place on October 18 at Harlem’s historic National Black Theater, offered thought-provoking, forward-looking panel discussions geared toward raising awareness of the opportunities that this new industrial revolution offers.

Local politicians, including Charles B. Rangel, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for four decades, and  New York City Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, were on hand for the event. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer received The Charles B. Rangel Innovation Person Award, named after Rangel himself. 

Co-founded in 2014 by digital strategist Clayton Banks and Bruce Lincoln, former senior educational technologist and community outreach manager at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University, Silicon Harlem aims to transform Harlem into a technology and innovation hub. Its officially stated purpose is to “Make sure that Harlem, Upper Manhattan and it’s kindred communities both in and outside New York City are platformed so that they can leapfrog and take full advantage of the socio-economic opportunities that the next industrial revolution.”

Studies show that roughly 40 percent of Harlem’s residents lack high-speed Internet access.

The conference was sponsored by T-Mobile. Presenters included Adaora Udoji, media innovator, producer and investor in women founders; Debra Simmons, founder and CEO of LEVER3; MSNBC Anchor Richard Liu; Columbia University professor Courtney Cogburn; Crystal Bonds, principal of the High School of Math, Science and Engineering; and Donald Stevens, executive director, JP Morgan Chase.

Panel discussions fell under such headings as “Spatial Computing and the Future of Content,” “Tackling Cyber Threats,” “Reimagining Education,” and “Harnessing The Global Connections,” and covered the critical subjects of artificial intelligence, 5G, IoT, Blockchain, extended reality (XR), bio-tech, quantum computing, cities of tomorrow, and the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution on careers, family and the future.

Stephon Alexander, a Brown University physics professor by way of the Bronx, N.Y., delivered the afternoon keynote titled “STEM Creatsssivity and The Future of Technology.” Alexander also is the current president of the National Society of Black Physicists and author of The Jazz of Physics, and served as the scientific supervisor on filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time.

Frequently resorting to jazz and hip-hop references in his lively talk, Alexander emphasized the importance of taking curiosity seriously enough to explore questions about nature and the environment. He also spoke of “radical creativity,” which involves bringing outsider perspectives to stubborn problems, pooling creative ideas from diverse people and disciplines, and getting out of comfort zones.

“It’s important to play with ideas,” he said. “It’s important to make mistakes, to say something stupid. That’s how real scientists do it…Intelligence is distributed everywhere evenly. What some of us don’t have are access and exposure.”

Symbolic of the spirit of support and cooperation that hung over the event, presenters and industry profesisonals in the audience alike provided contact information and various resources to attendees wishing to break into STEM fields, or to know how best to support family members who had an interest in STEM. There was also a strong call to action to all attendees to participate in the upcoming census.

A panel titled “World 4.0,” where Banks reiterated his mission to “connect everybody,” was one of the conference’s biggest highlights. Christopher Levandos, vice president of Network Engineering and Operations for Crown Castle’s national fiber and wireless infrastructure network; Joshua Breitbart, deputy chief technology officer in the Mayor’s Office of the CTO for the City of New York; Ann Rosenberg, senior vice president and global head of head of SAP Next-Gen, an innovation community aligned with SAP’s commitment to the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development; and Malathi Veraragavan, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Virginia, were Bank’s co-panelists.

The choice of these particular panelists was intended to reinforce the idea that global entities, local government, business, academia, and social good oriented organizations must collaborate in order to improve communities and lives worldwide.

“We need the Silicon Harlems of the world to sit in the middle and say ‘Let everyone work together.’ Together we build that infrastructure with equity,” Banks said. “My purposes on Earth is to make sure everyone has a connection to each other. The other is to preach the idea that this is not beyond you.”

To illustrate this last point, he referenced Harlem’s fleet of gypsy cabs from years gone by that was, essentially, a protean form of the Uber business model. “We had to pick up the phone and call one of those Gypsy cabs and they’d be at your door before you hung up! You went down and jumped in the car and they took you where you wanted to go. We had Uber before Uber!”