Everybody Innovates Here

Becoming Future Ready when you have a past


When you have more than a few years under your belt in your career, it’s comforting to think, or at least to tell yourself, that you have this down pat. That you know, definitively, how to do the work, deliver the solutions, that your profession requires. That you’ve got the answers.  You’re the Expert.

The problem for most of us is that our expert-ness was developed in, and set up around, a world that looks less and less like the one that we’re actually living in. We not only work differently, but we think and decide and communicate in ways that we would not have imagined when we started our careers 10 or 20 or 40 years ago.  

That’s not just a problem for people whose skills revolved around WordPerfect or COBOL. It’s a problem for mature professionals of every stripe, because the deepest change isn’t in technology, it’s in the fundamental assumptions underpinning our work.

Here’s an example of those fundamental underpinnings: in my profession as an urban planner, we were taught to base land use plans (the documents that guide zoning decisions and where to build roads and the like) on a linear extrapolation of a community’s historic growth.  If a typical suburban town’s population had grown an average of 2% per year for the last 15 years, you would project its population in 20 years as having grown by 2%, compounded annually. Pretty simple spreadsheet math.

That all worked reasonably well if you assume that the basic structures of life and community in 20 years will be about the same as it had been in the past 10.  But what if

  • Gas prices triple?

  • Fast internet makes online shopping easier than going to a store?

  • Catastrophic floods happen more often?

  • Newer generations don’t want the kind of housing you have, and the next town over has more of what they want?

We didn’t anticipate these kinds of changes, certainly not in any kind of systematic, rigorous manner.  We didn’t challenge our own assumptions, or those of the elected officials and citizens we were working with.  We assumed that the future would look basically like a variation of the past. Especially when that past had been good to us, ourselves.  

From where I sit, it’s clear that responsibility for tax crunches, acres of vacant retail, bitter gentrification fights, massive inequity and increasing costs of environmental catastrophes lay in part at the feet of “experienced” planners like me.  We didn’t pay enough attention to how the future might be different from the past. We didn’t consider the implications of changes that were already rumbling. And we deferred to the people who insisted on a stable future model, and didn’t always hear the people who raised concerns.  We didn’t make our plans to account for uncertainty, flexibility, unanticipated consequences. We didn’t design for resilience, environmental or social.

I’m as guilty of that as anyone.  

The only difference between making these mistakes in urban planning and doing that in your business is that planners can see the impacts of the choices we helped form all around us.  We work in one of the most complex fields you can imagine - the ecosystem of people.   And we’re often not the only decision maker, and usually not in ourselves the most powerful one. But we only have to drive down a street with an objective eye to see the impacts of the decisions we helped create.

Your profession is much the same.  You have assumptions about how the world is supposed to work.  You know what the past looked like, and it’s easy and comfortable to assume that the future will look like a version of the same.  

Sometimes that means that we look at changes unfolding around us and we don’t actually see them for what they are.  Sometimes that means that we insist that those changes don’t impact us and our field of work. Sometimes that means that we don’t know what to do with the new things, even when we understand their potential implications, and we shy away,  Better the devil you know, as my mother said.

In a moment in time where the future doesn’t look much like the past, “expertness” can be a liability, a millstone around our neck.  It can prevent us from finding the right solution.

And experts in any field I have seen aren’t good at giving non-experts a meaningful voice in the process.  Experts look down on the non-experts, dismiss their concerns, relegate their input to “user insight” or “feedback.”

But it’s becoming clear that this isn’t going to work for much longer.  Deference to an expert looks more and more like an outdated Victorian norm, like wearing a bustle.  

One of the core values emerging in the Fusion Age economy is that power becomes decentralized because of exploded information and communication access.  When high school students learn how to conduct a political campaign through Google, when two men in rural India can use a smart phone to become a media presence,  when new products can be funded in ten dollar increments by people across the world, then experts are no longer the gatekeepers of information, or processes, or solutions.    

We talk about disruption in industries a lot in these early years of the new era.  We watch media, retail, manufacturing, politics undergo upheavals. Blue chip icons lose their central position, new players proliferate, changes in basic operations send shock waves through the lives and employment of thousands.  

Our areas of expertise are probably among the next in line.  

Innovation gurus like to tell professionals and companies to “disrupt themselves.”  And they may show us new ways to use Post-It notes and whiteboards. But what they really need to teach us, all of us, can be summed up very simply:

  • Our expertise can be our biggest enemy, because it can shape our direction without us knowing it through the unexamined assumptions we have developed.  We need to learn to see those assumptions, even when they’re hiding in the back of our heads, and learn to question them. All the time.


  • Our best hope of breaking the hold that our expertise has on us comes from working with as many and as varied non-experts as we can get.  And “working with” means working with-- not listening and then discarding, not relegating to the corner, but putting them at the center of the process.  


  • That does NOT, however, mean that we just do whatever they say.  In the Fusion Era, the knowledge and insight that we used to call expertise has a critically important role: we become the facilitators of these new solutions.  We former experts are the ones responsible for asking the right questions, guiding the conversations, making sure participants have the best available information. We have to use our knowledge and depth to call attention to the risks that unintended consequences pose.  And most importantly, it is our job to shepherd the participants to the best solution that we can develop, together.


Disrupting ourselves like this is hard work.  It requires a putting-aside, not only of ego and sense of our own importance, but also of much of our deep-rooted assumptions about how we should work.  It’s shockingly, unnervingly easy to shift into the old mode of speech or behavior, even when we think in our heads that we are operating in the new model.  I’ve done that more times than I care to admit.

We have to learn this new approach like we learned any new skill, back in the days when we were learning new skills all the time: by careful practice, by intentional repetition.  Despite what some of us were taught, it turns out that we are perfectly capable of learning new skills -- we just need to do the practice that allows our brains to rewire.

And if you don’t want to?  I understand and I sympathize, but let’s be practical: we’re not going to have much choice.  Unless we’re ready to hang it up now, the Fusion Age isn’t going to wait for us to get comfortable.   


Design solutions for better Innovation Infrastructure and Innovation Districts

In the book that I am finishing up, tentatively titled Everybody Innovates Here, I am asserting a new vision for innovation in the dawning era, what I have taken to calling the Fusion Age.  My premise in the book is that, given what we need to do to thrive in this emerging economy, our scattershot efforts to build systems to support or enable innovation are not adequate to the challenge ahead of us.  And I lay out as clearly as I can what a better system would look like.

This piece may or may not make it into the book - struggling a little with structure and flow,

which is a pretty common problem.  But sometimes the cuttings have value, too.  

The premise here is: How should the physical spaces in which we innovate be designed differently?  “Physical spaces,” in this case, run the gamut, from co-working offices to innovation districts.  The book gives definitions of each of these, identifies the roles that they can and should play in the larger innovation ecosystem, and analyzes where the ways we currently use these spaces, and programs, fall down.  

So whether you are developing a single coworking space or a multi-block innovation district, what design elements will help it accelerate innovation?  

  • Maximize flexibility, for now and for the future. The fact of the matter is that at this point in history, we don’t know a lot about what the future of work, innovation and entrepreneurship will entail.  Just in the past few years, we have largely eliminated the need for internet cables, HDMI cords, desktop monitors, storage space for binders and books, and many other elements that were necessary even in the early internet stages of business. Some features, like wet labs or commercial kitchens, require equipment and plumbing that needs to be installed in a fairly permanent manner, but how do we anticipate the businesses, coordination practices, technology, etc. that we will need to accommodate  within our district in ten or 15 years? Some architects are already building with modular elements, convertible furniture, multi-use surfaces and other elements. Do more of that.

  • Emphasize small spaces. Years ago, a member of a start-up accelerator told me that the organizers of his program intentionally designed the space so that each team, each fledgling company, had slightly less space than they would prefer.  That caused some stress, but it also led to a sense of interdependence - crucial for new innovators to understand so that they continue to break free of the Lonely Genius mindset.  

  • Enable creative thought with private spaces.  Creativity and innovation necessitate both social interaction and private reflection and processing. Most accelerators and co-working spaces and the like provide huddle rooms and little closets for private phone calls, but these are hardly spaces designed for deep thought.  Many innovators would probably benefit from a convenient space that allows them to step away from the intense interpersonal world for some private thinking. A walking trail, a meditation space, even no more than a designated quiet room could provide a great benefit, especially for innovators who are introverted or, like many who experience Asperger’s syndrome, find constant interpersonal interaction stressful and exhausting.

  • Provide and value protected spaces. Every innovation organization says that they want to increase the diversity of their participants, but that requires more than just throwing them into the mix. If you are not part of the majority culture, you may live in a world of heightened insecurity.  Was that a racist slight or just an innocent joke?  Is there something in how I am asking questions that they are finding intimidating or strange, or am I over-reacting?  There’s some kind of unspoken rule about how people interact at that event, and I feel like I’m missing something important.   For many people who are not in the majority, the interaction-intensive space of an innovation community can be laden with uncertainty and exhaustion.   This is a delicate balance to strike -- no one wants people who are already conscious of their other-ness to be singled out, or treated as thought they had some kind of stigma that requires special treatment.  But it may also be important for members of a minority population to be able to convene and learn from sharing experiences with their peers, away from the actual or perceived judgement of the majority population.  Having a comfortable huddle-type room set aside, outside of the usual meeting scheduling, for anyone to use may enable people who are in minority groups develop and maintain the support networks that they need. But this space should not be glass-walled like many huddle rooms, or the participants may feel more than ever like they are under a microscope.  But don’t make it the broom closet, either.

  • Design Visitability.  If we are going to assert that the most effective innovation requires the broadest possible range of participants, then we have to make sure that our spaces throw up as few physical road blocks to particpation as possible. For a person in a motorized wheelchair, that step between the two old buildings that you combined to make your co working space may mean that they literally cannot  enter half the building. For a person with auditory sensitivity, the level of echo in your hip post-industrial conference room may mean that all of your public events are off limits. Even if few of your full-time participants have mobility or sensory or cognitive differences, keep in mind that people will come to your buildings and participate in your events on an occasional basis, and that throwing up a barrier to even the occasional visitor may mean that your participants lose an insight or an opportunity that they will not find if they only interact with people who have the same abilities as they.  Widening the scope of the innovator logically requires a visitable building.

  • Spaces that reinforce the culture and mission. Many dedicated innovation spaces include photos of participants, motivational sayings, and other elements that try to convey the possibilities of the work going on.  But these often just scratch the surface, especially if we are serious about not just doing any innovation, but doubling down on innovations that can have a significant impact on the community or the world.  What can we do with our spaces to continue to drive that sense of mission? To engage the members in exploring the horizons? What about rotating art exhibits from the local college?  Photos and stories of people who need innovations? Statistics?  Places for participants to write their goals, visions, motivations, in a place where they will see what they wrote regularly?

Designing for innovation is not about meeting a certain chic aesthetic, or creating something that supposedly screams “exciting” or “innovative!!!!!!” And can become accustomed to unusual things pretty quickly, so novelty isn't going to help the spaces facilitate meaningful innovation, especially not over the long term. But design that enables flexibility, supports the involvement of the widest possible range of people,  accounts for the varying dimensions of creativity and helps participants keep their eye on the bigger purpose of the work will create a setting that helps innovation flourish.

I don’t think that purpose-built innovation space is necessarily needed — and I’m not convinced at all that kegerators, foosball tables, bright colors and high top tables have any impact on whether meaningful innovation happens within a space or not. So much of what we associate with innovation is trappings, window dressings, designed to signal that This Place is Different without doing anything to directly accelerate humans trying to innovate. And, like so many other issues in innovation, that’s a factor of us not thinking very deeply or critically about how innovation happens, and how spaces can help or hurt those efforts. But we know enough about people - the source of innovation - to be able to do much better.

Design thinking: not enough?

Design Thinking is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo

https://hbr.org/2018/09/design-thinking-is-fundamentally-conservative-and-preserves-the-status-quo

Why Design Thinking works

https://hbr.org/2018/09/why-design-thinking-works


When you find two articles in one week, in the same respected publication, that make such different proclamations about the same thing, there’s something interesting going on.  

How can design thinking both deserve accolades and apparently fall short at the same time?  It’s not a case of good or bad, It’s a case of whether you are looking at it from the end of the Industrial/beginning of the Fusion era boundary, or whether you are thinking in New Economy, Fusion-era terms.   

As “Why Design Thinking Works” lays out very nicely, design thinking (and its subsidiaries, like empathy-based or human-centered design) have marked a significant move away from traditional ways in which we have solved problems for other humans.  As befitting our Enlightenment and Industrial Era teachers, our base problem solving method - in product design, urban planning, programs, you name it - has revolved around a pretty basic process:

Traditional problem solving =Identify, analyze, create and apply solution at top, apply down.

In traditional problem solving methods (think scientific method or conventional top-down management),  the entire process - from identifying the problem through rolling out the solution - is done by, or under the direct control of, a  Leader - an expert, a senior person, the boss. With the exception of any research that’s beyond one person’s capacity, the entire process springs fully-formed from the mind of one person, or a small group of like minded and like-authorized people: the Leaders, the Experts.

Part of the breakthrough of design thinking was the idea that an intellectual Leader-driven analysis doesn’t always generate the most appropriate solution, particularly when the people who need the solution are in any way different from the Leaders.  Design thinking emphasizes a deep and multi-dimensional understanding of the person for whom the solution is being deployed.

Design thinking supplements -  and sometimes replaces - the conventional abstract analytical methods with striving to empathize with the person who will use or be impacted by the solution.  What do they encounter? What do they experience that won’t show up in words or numbers?  How do they grip the device? What visual improvements will lessen the sense of stigma that’s preventing some of them from using it?

A designer coming from this tradition will use the tools of an ethnographer as much or more than an artist or a biologist.  They’ll do the same physical work as the subject. They’ll dig deep into the family and community context that shapes that experience. They’ll closely observe body language and other non-verbalized tools. They’ll process the information using methods that put insights into the lived experience at the center, even if quantitative data couldn’t measure it.  And they will share learnings and initial concepts with the people that they are designing for, repeatedly.

So,

Design thinking= Embed/empathize, synthesize (different tool set that relies on intuitive sense of resonance and pattern more than data), designers create/apply solution.

It would be hard to say that this isn’t a more humane way to solve problems.  The huge negative impacts, the unintended consequences and damage - caused by dangerous 19th-century industrial looms, 20th-century failed public policies for third world poverty, and everything in between - can trace its root back to the arrogant assumption that Leaders knew how to design the thing right, without understanding the experience of the people who would be using it.  

So Design Thinking represents a significant step toward solutions that are more likely to work for the people who most need them to work.  Design Thinking recognizes that the “experts” don’t have all the information necessary to create an optimal solution, and that lived experience, including the emotional and subjective, is important to whether a solution works or not.  If we are perceiving that the Fusion Age will require greater reliance on human creative and integrative potential, and networked rather than exclusively top-down problem-solving, then Design Thinking represents a beneficial method for unlocking more beneficial human creativity.    

But this is where the “Fundamentally Conservative and Protects the Status Quo” part comes in.

As the author of that article, Natasha Iskander, notes,

Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process. In doing so, it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty — like climate change — where doing things the way we always have done them is a sure recipe for disaster.

In other words, Dr. Iskander asserts that traditional “expert-ness,” at its core, is ill-suited to solving high-uncertainty issues -- the kinds of issues that seem to be of paramount importance, certainly in this moment at the beginning of the Fusion Era.  And that Design Thinking doesn’t do enough to change the equation. The thesis: even if you’re engaging more actively with the subjects of your design work than you would have in the Industrial Era, your status as the “expert” is blocking us off from some portion of the innovation thinking that we need.  If we are truly going to figure out solutions to our most urgent and vexing problems, we have to engage the inherent expert-ness of the people closest to the problem -- even, and perhaps especially when, our cultural knee-jerk reactions prevent us from seeing them as Experts.  

It’s an extension of the common critique levelled at Industrial Era top-down solution design: you don’t know what you don’t know, oh Expert, and you’re blocking us all from impactful solutions as a result.  

Years ago, I wrote a rather emphatic piece on how one of the paradigms of the New Urbanist planning and design movement had made colossal mistakes because he relied on his own “genius” and only grudgingly included the required public feedback in his plans. He asserted that designs would be much better if (I’m paraphrasing) the public would just get out of the way and let The Master do his work.

This passage talks in terms of real estate development, but I think those words are still relevant to Dr. Iskander’s point, and to the crucial challenge of meaningfully engaging everyone - not just our conventional Experts:

We should have learned by now that our Grand Visionary Designers are not infallible. Our landscapes are littered with Grand Visionary Architecture that was supposed to fix something, or create Something Big. And so few of those grand visions ever came out the way they were promised, or managed not to create a new set of problems....

This history is exactly why Duany is wrong about the importance of public participation.  Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns.  When residents resist a new development – even when they supposedly “don’t like change” – it doesn’t take many questions or much effort to develop a real understanding of their concerns and their point of view.

We fail consistently to realize that the locals are there every day and we are not. Local residents have a level of detail and a critical perspective that can make the difference between whether a proposed project supports the health of the community or creates a new burden….

Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know.   That is the real mark of wisdom.

If the people who live around a proposed development oppose a development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are already all around us.

So we need a new set of methods, a Design Thinking 2.0, that meaningfully engages the insights of the people who are closest to the challenge we are trying to solve, and engages them all the way through, not just at the beginning or at a few special feedback points.  

But how do we do that?  It will take new methods, new systems, that we are just starting to figure out.  More on that soon.


The industrial age and the fusion age

 

In the upcoming Everyone Innovates Here book, I found myself grappling with what to call the emerging economic/cultural/technical era that most of us feel that we are entering. I decided that the term that worked the best for me was the Fusion Age, but I only briefly unpack that in the book -- I needed to lay it out enough to make the case, but not end up down a futurism rabbit hole.  We are still squinting through the mist at this point, and I’m sure the name that the historians use won’t settle in place for a couple of decades yet.

 

But I think it’s important for all of us to be thinking hard about what seems to be coming and how that is already beginning to change how we work and communicate, and even think.  As I do spend some time on in the book, a variety of pressures are pushing us to make that transition faster than we probably would if left to our own devices.

 

Chances are you have already encountered, read about or at least sensed some of these evolutions. So here’s a Cliff Notes version of the transitions as they seem to be unfolding:

 

  • Labor-> Problem solving.  The Industrial Era depended on a plentiful supply of labor who could be trained, coerced and structured to deliver products efficiently (hence, the assembly line).  Fusion Era challenges appear to lend themselves less to the application of routine, infinitely repeatable processes, but they depend on the ability to generate creative solutions to problems.  Businesses increasing prize problem-solving and teamwork over most other skills, even though systems ranging from education to human resource management still often resemble Industrial Era counterparts.

 

  • Supply chains -> Networks.  Industrial-Era businesses typically relied on a daisy chain of suppliers -- and when possible, they directly controlled the entire chain - for example, U.S. Steel’s control over everything from the Minnesota ore fields to the ships to the steel mills.  By contrast, even our early Fusion Era businesses are counseled to focus only on their “core” business -- they rely on an extensive network of vendors, and may not even own their own office buildings.

 

  • Protocols -> Adaptive systems.  Industrial-Era businesses and organizations tended to rely on codified processes -- manuals, procedures, regulations.  Fusion Era organizations appear increasingly likely to rely on adaptive and evolving processes, such as the Holacracy method adopted by companies like Zappos that are trying to keep a competitive innovation edge in a field experiencing rapid evolution.

 

  • Defenders -> Belayers.  Much has been written about what “modern” leadership should look like, and those writings bear little resemblance to the Organization Man of the 1960s.  One way of thinking about this transition: traditional leadership derived much of its command-and-control approach from a responsibility to defend the organization from challenges, whether from outside or internal, that threatened or challenged the organization’s structure, culture, norms, etc.  Contemporary leadership approaches are focusing more and more on enabling and empowering employees -- like a belayer on a climbing team, whose job is to make certain that the climber can reach the pinnacle.

 

  • Buckets -> Currents.  Industrial-Era processes tend to group things, separate things, classify things.  Again, the traditional assembly line gives us our best mental image of that -- men in the town where I grew up spent years executing the same step in the manufacturing process, like installing a fender or cutting hot steel into specified lengths,  over and over again. Manufacturing made an early shift to the Fusion Era on this front, with team-based methods and systematized quality control becoming the norm from auto manufacturing to paper mills by the 1990s. Now most manufacturing processes have a team that follows the product through much, if not all, of the production system together.  

 

  • Sole source -> Aggregator/Curator.  In the Industrial era, most of your information came from a limited number of sources: one or two newspapers, three TV channels, perhaps a couple of magazines or the occasional club meeting presentation.  We are acutely aware at this moment as to how that has changed, as formal and informal sources across the spectrum have exploded. One of the most profound long-term implications of this appears to be the rise of the curator/aggregator function -- the vetting, packaging and presentation of sources.  On the surface, this can look like a return to the older form, but the role is significantly different, as the curator depends on its reputation for selecting correctly and does not directly control the editorial. The proliferation of professional conferences, sometimes targeting very narrow verticals, appears to speak to this emerging Fusion Age role.  

 

  • Efficient -> Resilient.  The Industrial Age, perhaps more than anything else, prized efficiency. The entire purpose of the assembly line, the paper mill, the mega-farm, the state education system, was to gain efficiencies, both in terms of speed and in terms of consistency and predictability.  But as writers such as Nassim Taleb have demonstrated, efficiency comes at a cost: the more efficient a system is, the more fragile it is. A system that is designed to optimize efficiency depends on a complex chain of elements designed to fit precisely….but if one piece fails, there is no backup.  And in a world of high unpredictability, resiliency arguably matters more than optimal efficiency.

 

I will unpack the ramifications of some of these shifts in upcoming posts.  But these shifts drive Econogy’s mission: we understand that we need new ways of working, learning and collaborating to thrive in the Fusion Era, and that is true of experienced professionals and students alike.  The sooner we learn to Create Fusion in our work and our communities, the sooner we will overcome the most stubborn of our current challenges.

Everybody Innovates Here

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.

In 2013, I wrote a book called The Local Economy Revolution that described how conventional economic development and urban planning methods were failing to create the kind of communities we need in the emerging era. In 2015, I wrote a book called Crowdsourcing Wisdom that addressed one of the core failings I had identified: a systematic failure to meaningfully involve everyone in a community in making decisions about their communities’ futures.

In 2016, I put two more partially- completed books on hold to work on a start up. My distraction didn’t come from an app or a shop:

It came from the opportunity to build groundbreaking new systems that could enable the change I’d been grasping for.

Over the past 2 years, I’ve seen close-up what systems for accelerated innovation can do. I’ve watched people who haven’t yet finished college equip a business to raise millions in investment. I’ve seen 60-year-old founders’ eyes open wide when they’re shown a solution they had never considered — by a team whose average age is 24. I’ve watched an overlooked neighborhood discover its hidden assets and find its authentic voice.

And we’ve worked with innovators across the spectrum, across silos and across the country to learn more about new ways of working and doing, better and faster.

What we have learned at Econogy is:

  • We need much more innovation, from the grassroots to the corporate, and from the social to the technical. And we need that innovation to get out of the local test, the pilot stage, much faster and better than its often does.
  • We need, as a culture, to get much better at innovation if we want to have half a chance of meeting the stunning array of challenges in front of us.
  • We have been leaving innovation too much to chance for something that we need so much. We’ve relied on magical thinking, unquestioned rules of thumb and feel-good anecdotes, and we’ve gotten haphazard results, at best, as a result — haphazard results that waste much of our best assets.

This book captures what innovation districts, startup ecosystems and other parts of this emerging sector need to do differently if we are all to build the world that we need in the emerging era. We need

  • more innovators,
  • more completely and fully diverse innovators,
  • more intentional innovation growth,
  • more intentional connectivity
  • more intentional interlacing between corporate, institution, starters and non-profits, and
  • more intentional effort to not only start more, but enable every start to reach its full capacity, locally or globally.

We’re glad you’re along for the journey.

What we learned about unexpected innovators

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.

For my Econogy co-founder, Owen, and I, the purpose of Econogy has been to accelerate innovation for the places and people we care most about. That includes universities and neighborhoods, businesses and nonprofits, wealthy and disadvantaged, students and seniors. We focused our first two years on building a new machinery of innovation: a system for unlocking the capabilities and lack of barriers that one overlooked source of innovation — young adults — bring to problem-solving.

We found that a support structure that combined diverse teams, clear processes, and high-stakes stretch challenges resulted in practical but innovative solutions to problems that had no cookie-cutter answers. From both a business and a human development standpoint, the results were better than (I, at least) anticipated.

We then tried the same methods with adults of varying ages faced with creating strategy for their community’s future, and we had similar results.

Consistently, people outperform our expectations when we place around them a structure that enables them to solve problems collaboratively and constructively. And innovation research has found the same:

  • Diverse teams consistently make better decisions, potentially because they “alter the behavior of a group’s social majority in ways that lead to improved and more accurate group thinking.”
  •  
  • When teams use explicit structured processes to evaluate choices and make decisions, they are more likely to succeed — and when leaders assume that the team will take care of itself, the team is more likely to fail.
  •  
  • Creating useful solutions to problems that do not have direct precedents require a fundamentally different approach than simply tweaking things that have been done before. And being too familiar with the things that have been done before can be like a pair of blinders, making it impossible to see feasible alternatives that fall outside your expectations.
  •  

At Econogy, these experiences gave us proof of concept on something bigger: we had a small but accumulating body of evidence about how we could enable people to accelerate innovation. 

For someone who had spent over 20 years trying to improve problem-solving in communities as a downtown revitalization, urban planning and economic development specialist, this was the kind of insight I’d been looking for. You see, I’d become trapped by my conventional understanding of how economies and teams work, too.

Before co-founding Econogy, I had written a lot of lines in a lot of blogs and articles and books about how local economies needed to change, and how the ways we were pushing that to happen weren’t working. I had spent hundreds of hours with tech startups, mom and pop shops, universities, microentrepreneurs, and the organizations that try to take care of them. And I knew we needed something different.

But I didn’t know what.

After two years of working out the mechanisms for supporting diverse team innovation, and combining that with decades of experience with economic and community support organizations, we think that most cities need empowered innovation districts to accelerate innovation across the complete economic and community spectrum.

There’s a lot of different kinds of organizations in this process, and they go by different names in different places. So for sake of simplicity, we’re going to call all of these organizations Innovation Systems.

An Innovation System, as we are describing it, is a program, a place or a group of programs and places that play a role in generating more economic activity from the people who are in a community. These might include anything from a tech accelerator to a regional rural entrepreneurship collaborative, from a university advanced manufacturing initiative to a class for African-American urban residents.

That’s a radical statement, in case you didn’t notice. Historically, we have carefully parsed these segments apart — tech programs over here, Main Street business owners over here. We differentiate them based on how much money they might make, where their clients live, where they will have their shop, whether we designate them as having a “social impact,” and more. And yes, they will have certain needs that are specific to their unique situation.

What we find over and over is this: Innovators and entrepreneurs are often more similar than different. They all need help innovating. They all need help getting out of their own paradigm. And they can all learn from each other.