UNC Speaking of Innovation

A Call to Outrageous Ambition

Originally posted to Changepapers.org on September 15, 2009 by Leslie Boney + Matthew Muñoz

OK. Here's the challenge: to figure out how North Carolina can become the most innovative place in the world.

And here's the expanded version: what buzz can we create, what policies can we change, what energy can we rally to help North Carolina become the place where, more than any other geography in the world, innovation – the ability to translate new ideas and technologies into new systems, products and services — oozes out of our students and young workers, out of leaders and middle managers and line workers, and oozes in to young companies and old companies and state agencies and nonprofits and schools, creating new ways of doing business, new products, new companies, new jobs and a new sense of hope and optimism that our future will be even better than our past?

Hmm. Sounds a little….OUTRAGEOUS. Why should we think that North Carolina, a state with a name defined half by geography and half by a 400-year-old king (Charles I — his Latin-speaking buddies called him "Carolus"), can reach a goal of being the most innovative place in the world when other states and nations are trying to get to the same place and are investing large amounts of money to get there? In some ways, that kind of arrogance sounds, well, uppity. We are, after all, a state that has long viewed itself as a "yeoman state," a "vale of humility between two mountains of conceit." We call ourselves the "good"(not great) "old" (not new) "North state" (don't want to suggest we're any better than the "south" state). And we sometimes act like we are setting our sights on being just slightly above average.

But ya know what? That foot-shuffling, aw-shucks image is a cover-up, false modesty that papers over the real evidence. Because we are ALSO a state that has a history of taking bold steps in the face of tough challenges. We are:

We can do this. And it's time for us to get started. Sure, it's a big idea. It involves making some big changes — in how we educate people and with which skills, in how we support startups and recruit companies and people, and in how each of us thinks about our jobs and careers. But it's the kind of idea that former governor Terry Sanford would applaud as one of "outrageous ambition" – to be the world's most innovative state. We have the ABILITY to do it. The question is: do we have theWILL? Or maybe there's a different question: if we don't have the will, are we ready to live with what happens if we do nothing?

  • Our hometowns and counties and regions get less competitive.
  • The gap between the small number of people who've made it and the huge number of people who are stuck grows into agulf.
  • Our standard of living slowly erodes as we buy what other people in other places think up and make, and as we wait for others to solve the giant problems of the world and hope their solutions will trickle down to us.

That's not a North Carolina any of us wants to live in.