What Happened to the Environment for Collaboration?

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is how the current tech environment in Portland feels leaner over the last several months. An economic downturn seems like the perfect time to branch out, try new things, experiment, but that’s not the atmosphere I’m feeling. Everyone seems stretched, hunkered down, focused on finding work or keeping the income they already have. Freelancers are traveling more to get to clients, or navigating big gaps in work, and full-time employees are working longer hours in leaner organizations, or just pushing themselves harder to not be an easy layoff target.

Cash is scarcer, too. Either we don’t have any, or we’re holding on to what we do have for fear things will get worse and we’ll need the reserves. WhereCampPDX has raised only a third of its budget so far, with just three weeks to go, and that’s even after we cut expenses relative to last year. BarCamp Portland had similar difficulties last spring.

CubeSpace closing was hard on many of us, as well. Just about every group I work with has struggled to find replacement meeting space, and some activities are on hold because we’re just not sure where to do them now.

Putting this into the context of last winter’s post on community health, it’s clear that many people are struggling to earn a living. The Oregon unemployment rate is up to 12.2%. [Update: The Oregonian confirms the effects on tech jobs as well, saying “Oregon’s high-tech work force is at its smallest since 1996”.] We’re also struggling with the room to incubate new ideas: we need meeting spaces, free time, and not too much stress about how things will turn out. Last, seeking stability wins out over growth.

It’s not all doom and gloom: there are new spaces like Portland Incubator Experiment, and NedSpace now has a second location. We have Word-, Where-, and DrupalCamp(s) planned this fall. Planning around the City of Portland’s support of open data and open source continues, if quietly (outside the design community), and several of us are pondering rebuilding infrastructure with open source community centers and professional associations.

Still. I am wondering what we will need to regain the sense of creative latitude I saw even a year ago, and whether this will continue to get worse, more constrained, before it gets better.

Tell me: what are you building right now? What’s holding you back?

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