It may be a rude awakening, but John McElligott wants to show Greenwood the future is coming, whether we’re ready or not.
McElligott is co-founder of a development and construction company and has been CEO and founder of two tech startup companies. He’s made a career as a national speaker on the effects of technological development, robotics and artificial intelligence, and he’s in Greenwood to share how these changes might transform the Lakelands.
“That’s one of the reasons VisionGreenwood exists, to find these opportunities,” said Kay Self, Vision Greenwood’s executive director.
She met McElligott at an event for a state biotechnology organization, where they spoke about robotics and artificial intelligence transforming workforce and industries.
“I thought, why not try to bring some of that to Greenwood,” Self said. “Just to open people’s eyes to what’s happening outside of Greenwood. … Understanding robotics and what opportunities there are coming down the pipeline for their futures — that can be invaluable.”
McElligott is set to give a keynote presentation on technology and its role in shaping a new labor landscape at 7 p.m. today at the Greenwood Community Theatre, 110 Main St. There will be a VIP reception at 5 p.m. at the Arts Center.
McElligott said as he dipped his toes in the fast-paced world of startup tech companies, he quickly developed an appreciation for the potential in what he called third-tier cities. Rural communities were transformed by the first and second industrial revolutions, but the digital revolution of the ‘90s left many rural communities in the lurch.
“I was talking about how technologies and AI were going to impact third-tier cities, cities of less than 100,000,” he said. “I made the decision that I was going to really invest in my community and that we wouldn’t be left behind again.”
He said there was a shift in how people think about new technologies in the digital revolution. Business leaders went from being risk-takers to being managers, caretakers of systems that became entrenched and seemingly immovable.
“Unfortunately during that time period, a lot of small communities ended up collapsing and a lot of the venture capitalists and innovation siloed in Silicon Valley, Boston and New York,” he said. “I became convinced that small communities had the genetics of this greatness and innovation.”
The chance to seize the opportunities that new and developing technologies present is driven by access to broadband internet, he said. He praised VisionGreenwood’s efforts as a pilot program for doing speed test data analysis to arm internet service providers with information on where the pockets of people without broadband internet service are.
The coronavirus pandemic has also changed things dramatically, he said, and combined with changes in technology it has created a prime opportunity for communities to chase new types of development.
“Business as usual got turned upside-down, people were forced to adopt Zoom technology, people are demanding more flexibility, the great resignation — people are quitting and job-hopping, doubling of the minimum wage,” he said. “All of this is creating a perfect storm for the adoption of mass robotics.”
It’s getting easier to learn and use technology, he said. Tools that used to require a college education are becoming usable for the average person, and he said the labor pool is looking for more people with hands-on skills.
For that reason, McElligott said he wants to connect with young people who are still in school. He’ll be talking with local high school classes, and said he’s exited to see how they receive his message. He’s run focus groups where he’s heard from 16-year-olds who have thought this wave of new technologies is for a younger generation, that they’re already too stuck in their ways.
That scares McElligott, and he wants to wake people up to the idea that they need to seize the opportunities for change that are available now.
“To hear 16-year-olds sound like mid-level management really got me thinking deeply, in fact, I rewrote my whole presentation,” he said. “My hope is that I’m going to break down some walls very, very quickly. I don’t expect all of them to get it, but I expect a few will get it and potentially do amazing things.”
The fact that Vision Greenwood has partnered with the state Office of Regulatory Staff’s broadband office to be a pilot program for speed test mapping technology throughout the state is a sign Greenwood could position itself at the cutting edge regionally, he said. Self said that’s one of the reasons she asked McElligott to speak in Greenwood, to tap into his experience in other small towns that have seized these opportunities. She said the future is moving toward robotics, and fast.
“That is the opportunity that we have now. There’s an explosion of new technology that has to be wrestled away from Silicon Valley, it has to. They’ve been given a chance, and they screwed it up,” McElligott said. “Little towns like Greenwood harnessed steam and machines. There was a time when people saw a new technology and people thought, ‘I could do that.’”
Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.