Optimizing for Innovation: Goldilocks and the Three Regions
Leslie Boney, UNC System
Partnership for Innovation and Education
November 10, 2010
So what if we woke up one day and found out that the world had fundamentally changed? What if we lost huge portions of our textile economy and furniture and that the tobacco quota system was gone? What if we were smart enough to rejigger and move into fiber optics? And what if that blew up?
What if we discovered that the rest of the world could make most things cheaper than we could, and almost as well, and that people wouldn’t pay a premium for the stuff that we made?
What would we be left with? And how would we set ourselves up to compete in that kind of world?
Today’s great economic challenge – in the US, NC and the Catawba Valley – is to find an economy that is the right size that works when most stuff can be made almost as well and cheaper elsewhere.
There are three big options for us as the world and our economy change. We can fight against the change, what UNC System President Erskine Bowles sometimes describes as a doomed effort at “trying to recreate the good ol’ days.” That has the advantage of making us feel like we are doing something, but if we are somehow successful, cuts us off from the low prices and multibillion person market available to the rest of the world. We can try to slow down the change and move as slowly as we can, which buys us time but leaves us further and further behind as the rest of the world embraces change.
Or we can take active steps to embrace the new economy, trying to think of a few high-leverage things our government, the private sector and public sector could do that would put us in a different position.
There are plenty of people doing the first two, and there is some value in some of that work. But what we really need is some people looking for the long-term solution. And that effort needs to start NOW, TODAY, HERE.
We are just beginning to recover from a seismic shift in the state’s economy – since June 2008, we’ve lost 225,000 net jobs in NC. Some are temporarily gone; others are gone forever. If you do the math, it’ll basically take us two years of net positive 10,000 jobs a month just to get back to where we were in 2008 – and that doesn’t take into account all the new people moving here because they have heard we are one of the best places to live and work; the #3 place for business climate; and the #1 best place to move a business.
So here we are in a gathering with four counties that haven’t historically loved each other.
How can we figure out how to get to the kind of scale we need AND the kind of common commitment we need? I think it’s important to feel a deep sense of COMMON, CONFIDENT DESPERATION. You have weathered the storm before and found solutions. Now there is a new storm and a new sort of solution. What does that solution look like? It involves our people – raising up a new generation of people who know that they have to take control of their own work and learning lives, solve their own problems, and that they have education institutions standing by their sides to help them do that.
Can you make that fundamental pivot?
This region has a history of figuring out where to go next to make the economy work.
200 years ago you understood the power of land and found a way to grow food and find gems and stones in it.
100 years ago you understood the power of the river and learned how to use mills for power and make clothing and apparel here.
75 years ago you understood the value of trees and learned how to make furniture here.
10 years ago you understood the value of electrons and learned how to make fiber optics and two years ago you learned how to help people store data here
The problem is that the amount of time a great business idea lasts keeps getting shorter.
The balance between thinking and making keeps tilting further toward thinking.
This group’s job is to understand how to turn the region into a gulfstream of creativity, an arsenal of innovation, where everyone has the skills and mindset to relentlessly invent and reinvent themselves.
You’re not too small. You’re not too large. You have the right size and people – private sector folks, K-12, public and private colleges and universities, civic and nonprofit leaders.
With the right strategy and the right execution, this could be the first region optimized for innovation. I can’t wait to see what happens next.