Dallas’ Evolving Tech Community Offers Model for Successful Regional Growth

DFW has never been a stranger to tech success stories, but what the area has lacked is a sense of cohesion and identity. Why? In part, sprawl.

This article in GeekWire has been circulating on the interwebs. It talks about the strides made by Dallas’ startup community in recent years to build the sense of identity and community that is necessary in any entrepreneurial tech scene hoping to thrive on sharing, synergy, co-mingling, and all that other mumbo jumbo stuff they blabber on about in Austin every March.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about Dallas tech, so I can’t attest to how accurate this portrayal is (it appears in GeekWire ahead of a GeekWire-sponsored Startup Week in Dallas next Month), however it does ring true with D CEO’s latest cover story. I bring it up because there is much in GeekWire’s portrayal of Dallas’ tech world that suggests a model for how we should be thinking about city-building and regional growth.

First off, while DFW has never been a stranger to tech success stories, from Texas Instruments to Mark Cuban, what the area has lacked is a sense of cohesion and identity. Why? In part, sprawl:

Part of that disconnect was a result of DFW’s geographical layout. While downtown Dallas is comparable to other startup hubs, what separates this particular region is the sprawl that spans across 9,200 square miles.

There is Fort Worth itself, of course, but suburbs like Plano, Irving, Garland and several others all have their own pockets of business activity with both big companies, and more recently, small ones, too.

For example, Frito Lay is based in Plano, American Airlines is in Fort Worth, Flour Corporation is in Irving, and GameStop is in Grapevine.

These towns aren’t a 30-minute walk from each other — more like a 30-minute drive. Joyce said the sprawl has kept the DFW startup scene from growing faster than it could be, partly because of fragmentation.

“It’s definitely something that slows things down a bit,” he said.

That is changing, in part, because of efforts by startup-ers to build cohesion within subset communities. Downtown is home to some groups, but more interestingly, individual cities – Plano, Grapevine, Irving – are beginning to foster identifiable startup communities, sharing and collaborating between each other but also strengthen their own identity:

From an entrepreneurial perspective, each of these towns is developing their own identities, their own ecosystems.

Hubert Zajicek, CEO of the Health Wildcatters accelerator and local angel investor, noted that the idea of each suburb building its own startup community was not in the conversation three years ago.

“People didn’t identify themselves as being from these pockets,” he explained. “That’s changing. They used to be little towns, but now they’ve grown up with lots of infrastructure.”

The key now is to continue building connections between the pockets of innovation and maintaining ways to stay in touch with one another.

This highlights a key component of our continuing conversation about transportation, urbanization, and strengthening Dallas’ inner core. Often advocates of strengthening Dallas’ central core can sound like opponents of the suburbs and the greater region. But this isn’t a city vs. suburbs, us vs. them debate. Our region is larger than most states. It’s bigger than some countries. The most sustainable and successful future for the region rests in sprawl evolving into a network of interconnected cities of various sizes.

Dallas and Fort Worth are the big gorilla cities, but as we continue to expand in population, Plano, Irving, Grapevine, Garland, Arlington, etc. should all emerge as suburban communities with small, dense cities at their individual cores. To its credit, Plano has been on this bandwagon for years, investing in its downtown as well as Legacy on the west side, creating the start of what looks like a suburban “sub-regional-state” with two urban cities within its boundaries. Perhaps we need to start thinking of DFW as a country, and each of our land massive suburbs as states. Each of these suburb-states should have one or more smaller cities within their confines.

The goal, I believe, should be a region that resembles something like the Ruhr Valley in Germany, where small, dense urban centers create a multi-nodal networked region. If this is how the tech community is evolving, then we should take note and follow suit with regional policies for transportation, development, and land use that promote a similar kind of evolution.

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