Incubating Innovation

A recent Business Week article by Saul Kaplan calls for making cities “urban innovation hot spots.” Although the need for such perspective is difficult to argue, it seems apparent that cities are already just this. After all, cities are innovation incubators by nature, given the agglomerations of business and people, whether part of the “creative class” or not. Kaplan correctly laments the devolution of the word ‘innovation’ into an empty buzzword. But, his ideas for how to “turn cities into innovation hot spots” also lack deep substance. He calls for ongoing R&D and for cities to “become places to experiment with new ways of dealing with important social issues – always with an eye to rolling them out nationwide.” Again, hard to argue, but this is already the role that healthy cities play.

Also called for is investment “in platforms that can make necessary disruptive change better understood and safer to scale.” The difficulty here is that, just like traditional investments, there will be many failures and lost money invested in those failures to get to the relatively few desired results that hopefully outperform the failures. This is a fact of business, but one can question the efficacy of such a strategy and whether or not today’s constituents are willing to take such risks in the face of daunting service cuts and shortages of public sector capital.

Finally, Kaplan calls for identifying “four cities with the necessary public and private-sector leadership” to effectuate the innovation experiments. I agree with the importance of innovation to a local, regional, national and even international economy. But, it is not enough to just say “we want to innovate” and then pick four cities to put those words in to action. There already exist hundreds, if not thousands, of effective “innovation hot spots” in the United States and abroad – colleges and universities are major engines of research, development and experimentation. And, of course, there are non-profit and for-profit enterprises that contribute greatly. So, picking four does not seem like the best approach.

Instead, a generalized road map that can be applied to any city can be based on simple rules, approaches and policy changes that survive political turmoil and business cycles. Many of these are borrowed from strategies for successful real estate development or investment, and have direct applicability to city-wide innovation development due to the need to balance various needs and voices in pursuit of success.

1) Limit bureaucracy and add predictability to any process that involves public sector approvals. This principle has been applied with much success in cities throughout the country as applied to approvals and entitlement processes for real estate development. Time is money, and those driving the engines of innovation benefit when the rules are clearly stated.

2) Understand these are long-term goals that outlast most politicians’ terms. A long-term perspective is absolutely crucial, as short-term fixes lack flexibility to respond to changing market, environmental and social trends.

3) Look to case studies that demonstrate past successes and failures on the part of cities to breed an innovation culture. These places already exist to some degree – Portland, Boulder and Brooklyn, to name a few. What are they doing right and what strategies are transferable and which are unique?

4) Identify the champion that pushes the vision forward. Stakeholders will ultimately drive the process, and should most certainly have a seat at the table. But, without the singular leader with undying commitment to the vision, the desired end result may never come fully in to focus.

5) Recognize that there will be many more false starts than successes. Persevere, stay true to the vision and think long term.

In the end, the overriding goal of incubating innovation is a largely common goal. While some will inevitably resist change, the long-term goal of sustaining urban vitality is hard to argue against.