Understanding the Innovation Infrastructure: the Pumps

This article is a draft excerpt from the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here: Developing a higher-impact, more sustainable, more effective system to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship. Click Here to learn more about the book and sign up for updates.

Few things bedevil a writer more than trying to make sense of a multi-dimensional topic in the linear world of words and sentences. You have to start somewhere, but that somewhere is necessarily going to be incomplete-- a partial sketch that leaves out, for the moment, crucial information.  This is the challenge of starting a description of Innovation Infrastructure with the kinds of discrete programs and buildings and the like that they include.

While this is the right place to start, if for no other reason than these are the things you can Google, focusing on the parts means that we momentarily ignore the connections.  Those will be the topic of the next chapter, but even with that they are easy to overlook, because we cannot see them. We have to make a conscious effort to hold onto the understanding that these elements  do not, or at least should not, function in isolation.

I’m calling them, collectively, Pumps for that reason: in many kinds of infrastructure, the Pumps make the system work - they literally provide the force that moves the contents to where they need to be. But if the pumps aren’t connected to the rest of the system correctly, then they have little benefit. Perhaps the spill their contents all over, or perhaps they damage the rest of the system.

As we noted in the last chapter, Innovation Infrastructure includes a wide variety of organizations, activities and places  -- and the language we use to talk about them usually isn’t standardized. So it makes sense to start by establishing some standardized language.  We’ll be using these terms to describe the different kinds of Pumps in the Innovation Infrastructure:

  • Programs

  • Places

  • Nerve Centers

  • Districts

  • Ecosystems

As you will see, some individual efforts will fall into more than one of these categories.  A Place may host a Program, or the Program can be delivered across an Ecosystem. A District might have several Nerve Centers, and some Nerve Centers may offer their own Programs.  

We will find  less value in trying to wedge a specific organization’s work into one of these categories than there in in using this structure to understand how various activities might fit into the larger system.  As I found when I confronted my own mental barriers in trying to figure out how to do things differently in Econogy’s early days, we need structures to help us think, but if we start treating them as rigid absolutes, we become blocked from important parts of what we should be learning.    

Here’s the terms we will be using:

Programs are specific activities or closely related groups of activities that are administered as a set and are designed to meet a specific objective.  A Program may be ongoing (like SCORE counseling) or it may be time limited (like a 9-week accelerator program). A Program can be offered by one organization or by several. A Program’s use does not depend on a specific physical place (even if it is conveniently hosted by one, it could be done somewhere else),  The tools of a Program usually involve curricula, workbooks or binders, lectures, group discussions, and meetings.

Places are physical locations whose purpose is to house innovators and supply some of the physical needs unique to their ability to innovate.  Co-working spaces and makerspaces are typical Places, although some large corporations may also have Places intended to foster innovation (Procter & Gamble, for example, has maintained a handful of off-site spaces for various innovation teams in Downtown Cincinnati over the past 10 years.)  Places usually involve unusual or “creative” spaces, varieties of seating arrangements, white boards, and doors or dividers.

Nerve Centers  are people or organizations that perform a traffic directing or switching function: they help potential innovators or other participants find the right place to plug in among the variety of Programs and Places available.  Nerve Centers do not own or control the larger system, but they are responsible for maintaining a comprehensive understanding of the larger system’s offerings (such as Programs and Places), as well as its needs -- ideally, it will use its broader awareness to prod Programs and Places into addressing new needs that the Nerve Center has encountered.  Nerve Centers may be designated as part of a system-building effort, or they may evolve into the role as the need for it arises.

Nerve Centers begin the process of transforming a collection of Places and Programs into a functioning system that can accelerate innovation beyond what an individual initiative can do.  They create this opportunity by enabling participants to readily find what they need -- an often-overlooked function that can make the difference between a functioning system and a collection of tussling, half-fledged attempts.

Districts are physical places -- ranging from a building to several city blocks --  where physical design, economic activity, government involvement and culture are oriented to facilitating innovation.  Districts may be master-planned or evolve organically, but they generally include

  • A variety of Places and Programs intended to foster innovation,

  • Spaces for businesses of varying sizes and growth,

  • Public spaces and amenities designed to encourage interpersonal interaction, and

  • Support activities such as restaurants, apartments and mailing services.

Coordination or collaboration among District elements may occur through some formal processes, but Districts’ implicit theory of how innovation will happen often relies on collisions and agglomeration effects as their primary methods. That is, they operate on the assumption that, by putting innovators in physical proximity and giving them places in which they can mix, innovation will occur organically as a result.

Issues of building and land use control, public policy objectives, public investment, private sector development and corporate support may have a significant role in how a District is initially formed and developed.  Unlike other Pumps, Districts necessitate a relatively substantial real estate investment, both to house the District’s activities in close proximity and to demonstrate the kind of “buzz” needed to attract participants.  This investment is often a mix of private and public funds and often results in a combination of adaptive reuse of existing buildings, new building construction, and physical infrastructure like sidewalks and transit stops.

Ecosystems are connected groups of all of the above elements.  Many ecosystems are defined in terms of a geographic area, but those areas are larger than Districts and their identity is not typically tied to a physical place (It’s not unusual for an Ecosystem to cover several counties).  Ecosystems may focus on specific subsets of innovation, such as sustainable food production or disadvantaged entrepreneurs, but they may also be broadly defined.

Ecosystems rely heavily on their ability to communicate with and coordinate wide-flung collections of Programs and Places, and even Nerve Centers and Districts, and they tend to use facilitative methods to coordinate participants and align activities in service of ecosystem - wide goals.  

Obviously, all of these Pumps play important roles in the infrastructure.  Programs increase the odds that an innovator knows how to keep herself afloat -- most focus on business management and growth skills, which aren’t many innovators’ forte.  And Programs give some entrepreneurs the hope that they’re not insane to be trying this (despite the messages she may be getting from her grandmother or her cousin).

Places give the innovator a physical connection to others pursuing the same ambitions, and he may find that he experiences a few lucky collisions while he parks his laptop at the table or waits to use the CNC machine.  

In communities where the Innovation Infrastructure is starting to mature, Nerve Centers become crucial to helping the innovator land in the right place and get access to the right help quickly. Otherwise confusion and mixed messaging may lead the potential participant to waste her limited time and money in the wrong place.

For work that benefits from close coordination, Districts can play a crucial role in easing an innovator’s way, as physical access and knowledge demonstrate how closely they are still tied to each other.  And Districts attract other innovators, drawn to the energy that a good district projects. Finally, Ecosystems place all of these within a larger context, facilitating for each innovator a reach and access that extends beyond any city block, making them part of a massive economic movement.  

Most Innovation Infrastructures start with a Program, maybe a Place, and add a few more of these before the more complex structures take shape.  Like physical infrastructure, innovation systems have a habit of evolving piecemeal, over time -- someone notes a need, someone creates a new Pump.  At first, that one Pump might do enough. But as the number or people increases and the complexity of their needs grows, those individual systems pretty quickly become overwhelmed, like when increased development forces houses that used wells to hook up to a new water line.    

Here’s an important point:  the household in that example had the option of hooking up to that water line because, maybe many years before, a team of planners thinking about how the area might change in the future anticipated that this area might need a water line.  Based on that plan, the engineers calculated the amount of water it should carry and designed the system of pipes, valves, joints, pumps and more required to deliver that water reliably from its source to this house.

The water pipes didn’t just appear there, and the Pumps don’t often grow their own connections.  Someone envisioned and laid out what was needed for the whole system to work.

That’s our big challenge. But before we get there, let’s take a look at how the Pumps ultimately become able to do what we need them to -- by connecting via the Pipes.