Towards a Climate for Innovation
Originally posted to Changepapers.org on September 25, 2009 by Leslie Boney + Matthew Muñoz
If North Carolina is going to have a conversion experience and drink the sweet tea of innovationalism, there's plenty of work to do and plenty of ways to imagine organizing the work.
Organize and Choreograph
We could divide work into metro and rural strategies: Some ideas that work in cities aren't going to work in rural areas, and vice versa. There's plenty of thinking to do in this space, and some of it is already underway (see here, here, or some of the ideas from the NC Rural Center and the National Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, for starters). So we could look at the key differences between rural and urban innovation cultures.
We could separate out what has been called game changing, or disruptive innovation, from incremental innovation. That means sorting the kind of ideas that result in the light bulb from the kind that result in the 60 watt variation. Game-changing ideas turned into action can shift whole markets and bring new advantages to the people and places that develop them. Those sorts of innovations get you a magazine cover or a Nobel prize. But with new markets come greater opportunities for entrepreneurial activities and more pathways for incremental innovation, which'll often get you more jobs (there are more people making money off of iPhone apps and attachments than off of iPhone manufacturing). North Carolina needs both types — is it useful for us to segment success in these ways?
A related way of categorizing the work: we could divide ideas into ones that deliver big I Innovation vs. little i innovation. Big I Innovation focuses on solving compound global problems like those on John Kao's list: global health and disease, water supply and quality, climate change, energy supply and efficiency, health care, poverty alleviation, population migration and national security. The Obama administration calls this set of intractable, crazy complex issues "the grand challenges of the 21st century," Design theorists Rittel and Webber call them "wicked problems." UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp talks about solving "the greatest problems of our times."
Whatever you call them — big honking problems or BHP's for short — problems this complicated have high barriers to entry for those seeking to solve them — requiring machines with lots of zeros on the right side of their price tags or people with lots of initials to the right of their names. They don't yield to a single easy fix: if you figure out how to turn corn into motorfuel for America, it provides a valuable solution for one problem. But someone else has to figure out how much more Americans will pay for corn on the cob in the store, and what Haitians who can no longer afford corn at all might eat.
Little i innovation would be the rest of the landscape. The strategies for big I and little i would likely look pretty different. But is scale or complexity useful in dividing — or unifying — our efforts?
All of these different categories can help us think through innovation — the ability to translate new ideas and technologies into new systems, products and services. But which types of categorization are useful for our needs?
Plant, Nurture, Harvest, Market
When it comes time to think about how to unify our efforts, there are a couple of ways that could be particularly useful. First would be to think about innovation as a crop. There are things we need to do to plant innovation and innovators — successfully increase the numbers of potential innovator seeds we plant in our ground. Then we need to find ways to nurture those people, their ideas or the companies they start, so they don't get choked by weeds. Then we need to harvest the ideas — ensuring that the innovations bear fruit, gain acceptance, dollars and momentum. And to make all of this possible, surely we need to build the market for acceptance of the ideas and policy changes and investments that will be necessary to plant, nurture and harvest innovation.
Another important way of categorizing innovation is to show that it's important no matter what sort of work you do. We've got to show that innovation can flourish, and must flourish, no matter where you work or live. That in order for the state to become dramatically more innovative, in order for the state to survive and thrive, we will need to look at making adjustments in our state educational systems, government, businesses and nonprofit sectors. In each of these critical areas, policy makers don't need to come up with the innovations ourselves, switching more to protecting the notion that, not matter where an idea comes from, any idea with merit can make a difference. We need to help create the conditions that unleash that ability and orientation among the people in our state — to create, over and over again, innovative products, innovative services, innovative perspectives and a future we can all believe in.
A climate forms as a result of the conditions. What conditions will sustain and renew the process of innovation?
Innovation in education — we need to produce and retain, at every level of education, people with skills to think creatively, and across disciplinary and institutional and national lines, about really challenging problems – in art, in social science, in science, and in technology. We need to "make" most of the people, to grow our own, and to "adopt" some – recruiting and holding on to talented foreigners. How do we produce more creative students and teachers, who can innovate themselves, but also figure out how to raise up more creative business, nonprofit and government leaders?
Innovation in the workplace — we need to find ways to make it easy for leaders and workers in both our existing businesses and startups to think in new ways about new problems, not just by reacting to opportunities but by coming up with game-changing innovations. That may mean rethinking tools, incentive or recognition programs or tax structures, and taking steps to create new environments — in technology, in production, in health care, in every line of work — where innovative thinking can happen. Do that right and it also becomes a recruiting strategy, as companies decide to move here to be close to NC innovators. How do we foster a more innovative business environment?
Innovation in government — we need to find ways to encourage government leaders and workers to create new ways of structuring how government works, how it delivers workforce training services, what it concentrates on and through which mechanisms — on a local, regional, state and multi-state level. How do we create governments and governing mechanisms at every level that are innovative?
Innovation in nonprofits — with the fast growth of our state's nongovernmental organizations we have a treasure trove of people and organizations ready to take on truly challenging social problems, propose new government and workforce structures and pilot critical game-changing approaches to our challenges. How do we create a more innovative culture, and more innovation, within our existing nonprofits, and form the new ones (or creatively consolidated ones) we need to solve our thorniest problems at some kind of scale?
Innovation for everyone — if we are to become a state of innovation, we want that state to work for everyone. If we are to compete, innovation can't be a niche activity undertaken by 5% of our population. We need to create new structures that enable everyone to be contributing partners to a more innovative NC, people who have the tools to be innovative in shaping their career path, who view it as their right and responsibility to help shape the future of the workplaces and the towns that they live in. The new economy can't be one built on either the give a man a fish or the teach a man to fish approach of the past. What we need is an economy where every citizen has the tools to determine, as a friend once put it, "what to do when the fish go away, or people lose their taste for fish, or you decide you don't like fishing anymore?" Solving that challenge requires innovation.
As UNC System President Erskine Bowles says, the call to innovation is a call for all hands-on-deck: "The people making these innovations might be chemists or engineers … or farmers or artists. But what they must all have in COMMON is an understanding that they can THINK new things—and that it's their JOB to do so." We need everybody to help and we need an innovation climate to work for everyone. The question is how?