March 27, 2013

The Dig South Conference Mashes Up Technology, Arts, and Business

Susan Cohen  /  Charleston City Paper


When Fast Company writer Shane Snow decided to christen Charleston "Silicon Harbor" in a June 2012 piece, it seemed a bit premature.

But the proof is in the pudding. According to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's Center for Business Research, there are currently 11,000 direct jobs in Charleston's digital economy –- that includes sectors like computer programming, graphic design, internet publishing, and more. And those jobs have an effect on 16,000 other jobs in the region, with an overall economic impact of $4.8 billion. All of the companies that participated in the Charleston Digital Corridor's 2012 survey reported adding jobs last year, with 86 percent showing double-digit job growth. These are workers who are, on average, making $25,000 more than other workers in the Charleston region.

That may be why it's the perfect time for the inaugural Dig South Festival, the Southeast's –- and Charleston's –- very own interactive conference.

Dig South is an intersection of technology, media, marketing, and the arts. The festival is using South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW), the Super Bowl of digital industry events, as a model, but it's not going to be a direct copy. Dig South is more intimate, more personal, and a good place for emerging entrepreneurs and mid-level companies to show off their enterprises without shelling out for the trip to Austin. And it's a venue for high-level presenters to get in on the discussion too.

"Across the Southeast, there are incubators and accelerators and entrepreneurs and all kinds of things bubbling up that are related to the digital economy," Dig South Executive Producer Stanfield Gray explains. Cities like Charleston, Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Chattanooga, and Nashville are all making their mark in the technology and creative industries, and they're embracing this kind of economy just like the more well-known metropolises. "I feel like the Southeast is emerging and will be able to compete with those other regions if we work together in a focused way and if we have the right infrastructure and we have support," Gray adds.

It helps that in recent years companies like PeopleMatter, Benefitfocus, Blackbaud, Blue Ion, and SPARC –- all Dig South participants –- have gone past the scope of Charleston, succeeding as national brands. "So there's great energy around this knowledge economy, and I feel like Charleston is the perfect intersection of job opportunities and quality of life," Gray says.

The Dig South weekend breaks down into three components. First up is an expo with exhibitors from the technology and creative industries. There's also a conference with big-name presenters like CNN Digital's Vice President and General Manager Meredith Artley, TechCrunch's East Coast Editor John Biggs, and Coca-Cola's Global IT Director Baron Jordan. They'll be discussing trends and emerging technologies alongside plenty of Charleston's digital economy stars, like Fuzzco, BiblioLabs, Hook, and even the City Paper.

Big data –- and what it can mean for businesses –- will also be a big topic at Dig South. "A small business now has many of the same tools that were only available to a very wealthy company 10 years ago," Gray says. "Now they can scale up, they can ramp up very quickly using those tools." Mobile commerce is another major component of the weekend, and digital marketing and publishing will be covered as well.

And then, of course, there's the "sideshow" entertainment, keeping the bigwigs of Coca-Cola, Facebook, and Tumblr amused when the TD Arena closes up for the night. Local and national music and comedy acts will perform, including Lee Fields and the Expressions, Dangermuffin, Elim Bolt, and comedian Dusty Slay. "The content creators and the artists have always evolved hand in hand with technology, all the way back to Thomas Edison, through Apple, the iPod, all kinds of digital gear," Gray says. "For us, it's really exciting to blend art and technology in this great mash-up and see what happens."

So far, the fest's various components have sold plenty of tickets outside of the Southeast. Digital economy nerds from New York, the Bay Area, L.A., and even Idaho will get to see what kind of role the Southeast will play in this emerging field.

"Charleston does an amazing job of recognizing and honoring the past," Gray says. "We tell a great story about our history. We're also hoping that people are looking forward to the opportunities of the future, thinking about jobs that are high-wage jobs, that are exciting and engaging on a global scale, and that the Charleston community, the people who live here will feel like they can succeed outside of Charleston without having to relocate to New York or to Austin or to another urban center to do so."