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What this tech guy wants to bring to his new gig in civic engagement

Alex Kaplan. October 14, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
Alex Kaplan has come a long way from delivering pizza and thai food, jobs he had to take after the startup he worked for tanked three months into the job.

That was early 2012, before the San Francisco transplant became deeply intertwined with the local tech community with jobs at startups such as Pop Promos, software consultancy Neomind and, eventually, makerspace NextFab.

Kaplan might hail from Silicon Valley, but he fell in love with the tech community here.

“People would ask me all the time why I’m working in tech in Philly,” he said. “It’s very possible to be globally relevant here. We’re not as small as we think we are. People make a global impact coming out of Philly, but also you can get a meeting with those people.”

But three weeks ago, Kaplan left that community behind when he walked away from his job as institutional relations manager at NextFab to become the sole staffer of South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA).

In three weeks, Kaplan went from negotiating partnership deals with Comcast and Penn to mediating disputes between block residents and construction companies as SOSNA’s program manager. By choice.


Kaplan said he “took the leap” when he saw an opportunity to make a bigger impact. Don’t get it twisted — he was working in some impact-related capacity in his role at NextFab doing things like giving presentations about why manufacturing is cool at elementary schools.

That stuff got him jazzed. He just wanted to do more.

“I think that we all kind of have our avenues for trying to make the impact we want to make on the world,” he said. “If I didn’t at least test out what [working with] the public sector feels like then I’d be leaving a serious stone unturned. This is a very small opportunity to step up to the plate.”

Kaplan has a plan to bring some of the tech community’s innovative spirit to SOSNA.

“What I want to try to bring to the table is some of the tech community potential to solve some of the civic problems,” he said. “That’d be really exciting.”

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Exciting, yes. But Kaplan knows he’ll have to be patient. He’s not working with big innovative institutions and tech startups anymore. He’s working with city government, volunteers and nonprofits.

They’re markedly slower to adopt innovation.

His plan? He calls it the “spider-hunting model”: Sit back and wait for partnership opportunities. Keep an eye out for what volunteers are doing or want to do. When there’s an alignment, make the connection happen.

For instance, some blocks are having an issue with illegal dumping. He knows someone in the tech community prototyping a camera that takes a photo every minute and uploads it directly to Google Drive. All he has to do is wait for the opportunity to bring the two together — not force it.

And he also knows it’s better to support and partner with existing organizations than launch an in-house initiative. An example? He’d love to partner with Coded by Kids to bring some programs into the neighborhood.

It’s just a waiting game. After all, he’s just three weeks in.

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