Tools that transcend and empower

In previous posts we discussed how the digital revolution failed to democratize opportunity. Instead, globalization and other factors such as automation have exacerbated – rather than equalized – regional disparities. This is due to the fact that making and manufacturing is a critical source of the innovation that drives growth. We emphasize the critical role of emplacement in ecosystems, drawing particular attention to the role of collaboration and communication in alleviating the alienation and isolation that hampers innovation. In this concluding post, we elaborate further on how a robust collaboration platform such as Peerdash in fostering a can-do culture of making and doing that empowers people to solve their problems, themselves.

Mutual Support

Tools that transcend industry and empower human capital for robust regional ecosystems

In-real-life (IRL) place- and space- metaphors are abundant in information technologies: desktop, chat rooms, bulletin boards. As embodied and emplaced human beings, of course we construct cyberspace to reflect real places and experience. However, most current tools tend to be industry or solution specific and do not take into account the human-ness of innovation collaboration,

Productivity tools, such as Dropbox, Microsoft 365, Jive, and Slack, allow users to share information, but not to discover synergies, people, or ideas – in the industry, they would be called “information silos.” This type of tool works best with existing companies and established virtual workers. What it does not do is create opportunities for the thousands of displaced workers in fly-over country.

Besides connecting resources and people, a central tenant of innovation is the protection of our ideas and communication. Almost all productivity tools currently in use are not secure – applications, email drives and cloud databases are regularly hacked, and companies are paying out large sums of money to hackers who steal their IP for ransom. In order for the innovation of this country to rise to level it needs to be in order to secure our future, the building block, the communication tool, must be secure.

There is only one platform technology – Peerdash™ – that was built “from the ground up” to specifically tackle innovation ecosystems and secure, multi-institutional collaboration. A product of “Emplaced Innovation” itself, Peerdash was a co-creation by specialists in their respective fields of: intellectual property law and asset management, systems-level technology, and regional economic development at the national and international levels.

Peerdash™ humanizes cyberspace to reflect emplaced ecosystems. Its unstructured database architecture reflects the decentralized, self-structuring emplaced networks that most closely resemble real-life interactions and communities.

Its driving ideology is security married with flexibility – and Peerdash™ can apply this lesson to entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems, where the stakes are the highest, and benefits to the nation are the greatest.

Regional economic development is critical for the competitiveness and security of the United States. It is also central to the integrity of American culture as self-reliant; interdependence fosters American independence. The current situation in the United States is the opposite of what it was in the post-War era. In 1945, the United States was a manufacturing powerhouse that supplied the world following the devastation of the Second World War. Government investment in science and technology was required to keep up the momentum of America’s competitive edge, fortifying its industrial dominance. Today, decades of outsourcing has crippled the country’s grassroots innovation capacity, impoverished hard-working American families and led to the neglect of industrial infrastructure. The economic development discourse has been dominated by scientism; science & technology are privileged over makers’, problem-solvers’, and tinkerers’ innovations in terms of their perceived economic impact.

Culture matters because ecosystems are people connected. Culture is less a policy-motivator, and more a policy-parameter; innovation and ecosystems that spur economic growth and development must be people-centric and emplaced.

Treating the symptom of economic deprivation without addressing the underlying cause (isolation and alienation) is doomed to failure. The innovation studies literature emphasizes the importance of decentralized, fluid networks that cross-disciplinary, functional, and organizational boundaries, but convene geographically. Shortcomings of the innovations studies literate include a) privileging technology and mainstream R&D institutions over grassroots innovators, and b) overemphasizing a normative approach.

Ecosystems are emplaced and embedded in a can-do culture of making and problem-solving. It isn’t enough to bring back manufacturing jobs, without fostering a fertile environment for innovators and entrepreneurs at the grassroots to take root and flourish. The backbone of such an ecosystem is a robust collaboration platform that empowers people to engage securely, identify synergies and work together.

 

Bibliography

Bush, Vannevar. Science, The Endless Frontier. Report to the President, Office of Scientific Research and Development, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: National Academies Press, 1945.

Cohen, Wesley M., and Daniel A. Levinthal. “Absorptive Capacity: A New Perspective on Learning and Innovation.” Administrative Science Quarterly (Sage Publications ) 35, no. 1 (March 1990): 128-152.

Fallow, James. “Dirty Coal, Clean Future.” The Atlantic, December 2010.

Feldman, Maryann P. The Geography of Innovation. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

Freeman, Christopher. Systems of Innovation: Selected Essays in Evolutionary Economics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publisher, 2008.

Longman, Phillip. “Bloom and Bust.” Washington Monthly, November/December 2015.

Mazzarol, Tim. “6 ways governments can encourage entrepreneurship.” World Economic Forum. December 29, 2014. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/12/6-ways-governments-can-encourage-entrepreneurship/ (accessed January 9, 2015).

Phelps, Edmund. Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Porter, Michael. The Competitive Advantage of Nations. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Saxenian, Annalee. Regional Advantage. Cambridge: Harvard, 1994.

Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy. New York: Harper, 2016.

von Hippel, Eric. Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2006.

 

Endnotes

[1] Economist Robert Solow identified the significance of technology in accounting for a large portion of economic growth in the late 1950s.

[1] Joseph Schumpeter (1942); also Richard R. Nelson and Sidney G. Winter’s An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (1982).

[1] Michael E. Porter (The Competitive Advantage of Nations, 1990) is one of the most influential scholars of business and economics of the current period.

[1] Wesley M. Cohen and Daniel A. Levinthal (1990) identify absorptive capacity as a factor that can inhibit or enable competitive advantage.

[1] Annalee Saxenian (Regional Advantage, 1994) undertook a comparative study of Silicon Valley and Route 128 to determine what cultural factors enabled the San Francisco Bay Area to outperform Boston in information technology in the 1980s.

[1] In Democratizing Innovation (2005), Eric Von Hippel argues that an important source of grassroots innovation is user-centered innovation, a disruptive, entrepreneurial force. Supported by ICT improvements and co-evolving with the free and open-source software movement, user-innovation communities and a rich intellectual commons are giving rise to grassroots innovations and entrepreneurial ecosystems that reach beyond software to improved designs of physical products.

[1] Edmund Phelps, Nobel Laureate in Economics (2006), argues in his book, Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change (2013), that the standard narrative attributing the explosive economic growth of modernity to the discoveries of explorers and scientists to be patently false. Rather, a change in culture resulted in “minds stirred and empowered to conceive, develop, and market innumerable new products and processes…”

Emplaced Ecosystems & Local Innovation

In the last post, we established that people making and doing is a prerequisite for grassroots or user-centered innovation. Production as an experimental base is a critical infrastructure in healthy ecosystems; privileging science and technology obscures the importance of manufacturing and making. In this post we discuss how transforming the digital revolution into a democratizing force takes a peer-to-peer platform for ongoing collaboration, a “Google” of skills, capacities, resources, and opportunities for all Americans.

Economic Support

The availability and diversity of the capabilities required for innovation-driven economic development are varied over time and space. The prevailing notion is that science as a system of human knowledge of nature is objective and universal. The law of gravity applies whether or not one is in Antarctica or Zanzibar. The idea of the objectivity and universality of science leads one to think that the inventions, technologies and innovations arising from it might also be similarly transportable.

However, it is a well-known fact that the results of experiments done in one lab are not readily replicable in another, even when the same protocols are used. There is dimension of local knowledge embedded in every laboratory, its instruments and how they’re calibrated. This localization interferes with the replicability of experimental results.

Similarly, reaping the benefits of innovation requires transportation, translation and localization. Noted scholar of geography and economic development, Maryann P. Feldman sees the transformation of portable knowledge into innovation as an exercise in translation, such that innovation, itself is conflated with communication:

Innovation, at a fundamental level, may be viewed as a communication process that bridges different disciplines with distinct vocabularies and unique motives. While information may be easily transmitted across great distances, translating information into usable knowledge is a more complex, cognitive process. (Feldman, 21 – author’s emphasis)

Transmitting and translating information is a localization process – it transforms knowledge by way of making or doing. It is emplaced innovation, which conflates with a translational communications process that embeds knowledge into practice, making firms competitive.

But what is the source of emplaced competitive advantage? Absorptive capacity is defined as a firm-level ability to recognize, apply, and assimilate technologies and create new markets. However, it is clear that the source of emplaced competitive advantage is conferred on an ecosystem-wide level, based upon the translational communication process of the whole ecosystem.

Thus, absorptive capacity is created through collaborative communication, as interactions among different actors having varying pieces of the puzzle share knowledge and experience and device new solutions.

The first prescription was to stop emulating Silicon Valley. […] This led to a second prescription, which was to build the ecosystem on local conditions. Grow existing industries and build on their foundations, skills and capabilities rather than attempting to launch high-tech industries from scratch. […] Build from existing industries that have formed naturally within the region or country rather than seeking to generate new industries from green field sites. Ensure all industry sectors are considered not just high-tech (Mazzarol)

Mazzarol admonishes policy-makers to deviate from the prevailing knowledge-economy, learn-to-code narrative, and engage in assets-based development – that is, leveraging the emplaced-people strengths of the region. But therein lies the dilemma: is there a way to democratize support, such that local innovators and entrepreneurs have access to a fully-provisioned ecosystem that provides all of the capabilities required for success?

Often the absorptive capacity is not lacking at all, but it is not leveraged because the communication – collaboration – tools preclude discovery and trust in existing resources. Human capital – the world’s most underutilized resource – can be better leveraged through a new collaboration paradigm.

The right collaboration tools foster a human, as opposed to technology-centric, ecosystem. This is important, not only because it makes for better solutions, but also because it creates value at the grassroots in communities where value creation – a capacity for innovation-driven economic growth – is absolutely critical.

If innovation is communication, then development depends on ecosystem collaboration capacity. Returning to the challenge of the great divergence in regional economic development, we established that building ecosystems is key policy prescription. The policy drivers for fostering convergence are to the two-sided coin of competitiveness and national security, as well as maintaining American cultural integrity. The sections below bring together examples of how this works in practice.

Indigenous innovation

Indigenous innovation is what happens when manufacturing and innovation join forces. This type of innovation is particularly promising for rebounding regions reinventing their industrial base. The advantage of having innovation activities close to the manufacturing goes beyond better understanding of the customer. Manufacturing, itself, is a platform for rapid experimentation. Rapid experimentation, and thus innovation, occurs when product development is integrated with manufacturing.

Writing in The Atlantic, James Fallow (2010) gives the example of China’s experimentation with coal and carbon emission mitigation. In China, innovation in sequestration techniques, post-combustion capture, and “cleaner” pre-combustion coal technologies are thriving. Why? Because China leverages all phases of market research, development, and industrial deployment. Innovation in coal combustion happens more quickly and efficiently in China than anywhere else in the world because they are building and operating more coal-fired plants than anyone else. Fallow notes:

“In the search for ‘progress on coal,’ like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well.”

Likewise, Saudi Arabia leads the world in patents related to desalination technology. Why? Because the Kingdom is doing massive amounts of desalination, and learning in the process.

Much more was lost than good jobs for hard-working Americans in the outsourcing boom: the United States lost innovation capacity. What innovations are left on the table as a result of globalization? What know-how has been lost, and how can it be recovered? Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps (Economics, 2006) argues that it wasn’t scientists’ and explorers’ discoveries that sparked the Industrial Revolution. Rather, it was a ‘mass flourishing’ of ‘grassroots dynamism’ that that comes when communities are emboldened and people empowered by a spirit of autonomy, unleashing the creative spirit that is in all people.[i]

Paradox: the new ‘where’ is both virtual and local

Many have hailed the digital revolution as the great equalizer. The internet was supposed to have been a democratizing force. Geography wasn’t supposed to matter anymore. Yet, the pace of urbanization is continuing unabated. The great American divergence in regional prosperity accelerated despite expanding cellular coverage and the ubiquity of internet access.

Despite today’s unprecedented interconnectivity, ecosystems remain hyper-local. Geography and proximity still matter. Many (but thankfully not all!) high-growth technology enterprises leave their communities. They relocate to ecosystems where they have the support they need to thrive – to the detriment of their originating communities. This entrepreneurial mobility phenomenon widens the gap between places like Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.

It is a paradox: information and telecommunications technology has not led to democratization of wealth creation, nor has it revitalized Middle America. Instead we’ve seen two distinct, limited tracks: the Gig Economy (Uber, Ebay, etc.), and the “teach them to code” approach (re-skilling).

The problems with the Gig Economy are well documented – worker insecurity, lack of traditional corporate benefits, and the initial costs of participation (e.g. your car must be less than 10 years old to drive for Uber). The problems with the “Let them eat code!” approach is exactly what you’d imagine – a 50 year old out-of-work coal miner with 3 kids to feed is not going to learn Javascript over the summer.

Technology can help drive innovation – when it is adaptable to the local. Collaboration software has created a space, and jobs, for virtual workers in hard hit regions; however, gaining access to those ecosystems is still an issue. The key to transforming digital revolution into a democratizing force is a peer-to-peer platform for ongoing collaboration, with government-grade security and discovery mechanisms to connect the dots – in essence, a “Google” of skills, capacities, resources, and opportunities for all Americans.

__________________________________

[i] Edmund Phelps, Nobel Laureate in Economics (2006), argues in his book, Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change (2013), that the standard narrative attributing the explosive economic growth of modernity to the discoveries of explorers and scientists to be patently false. Rather, a change in culture resulted in “minds stirred and empowered to conceive, develop, and market innumerable new products and processes…”

Other sources cited:

Fallow, James. “Dirty Coal, Clean Future.” The Atlantic, December 2010.

Mazzarol, Tim. “6 ways governments can encourage entrepreneurship.” World Economic Forum. December 29, 2014. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/12/6-ways-governments-can-encourage-entrepreneurship/ (accessed January 9, 2015).

Innovation and economic ecosystems are grounded in enterprise

In the last installment, we ended by noting that an ecosystem entails a situated network. Addressing the Great Divergence – regional income disparities – necessitates addressing the isolation of people and their alienation from their culture and environment. In the narrative below, we review insights about regional economic development drawn from Innovation Studies, and argue that connectivity in the form of dynamic collaboration, and emplacement in the form of its embodied situatedness are key to the formation of Emplaced Ecosystems.

The term ecosystem was first used in 1935 by Sir Arthur George Tansley, the British botanist. He coined the word to emphasize the significance of complex interactions between organisms and their physical environment. Before Tansley, phytologists tended to look at individual plants as self-contained entities. The importance of ecosystems is that they are self-sustaining, enabling environments.

To translate this biological metaphor to regional economic development means that ecosystem takes on the meaning of a situated network that helps innovators plant their ideas so that they take root, grow and bear fruit in combination with others.

Human ingenuity is the world’s most underutilized resource because people are limited by their circumstances: 1) isolated from the resources of a community of people with compatible and synergistic capabilities, and, 2) alienated from embodied and emplaced experiences of making and doing.

The ecosystem metaphor highlights the significance of interactions among entities on a complex system. Given that technology and innovation are significantly more complex than the more basic factors (labor, land, capital) engaged in economic production, the role of ecosystem analogy becomes increasingly more important in the regional economic development discourse. Therefore, it is Innovation Studies that has been the lens through which regional economic development has been viewed over the past few decades.

The Modern Enterprise – evolution and innovation, a destructive force?

Technology can be a double-edged sword with respect to economic development. Innovation – in particular, technological change – is considered to be a main driver of productivity increases that have spurred economic development since the Industrial Revolution. Some have concluded that four fifths of the growth in output per worker was due to technological improvements.[i]

Technology enables productivity increases, such that greater outputs are achieved without increasing inputs. Since labor is an input to production, it stands to reason that innovation can be a job destroyer.

Aside from globalization sending jobs overseas, technology – automation, specifically – can increase productivity such that machines do the work of people.

Entrepreneurial upstarts and technological innovation result in the ‘creative destruction’ of stagnant firms in a competitive environment in a way that resembles evolution. The principles of genetic diversity and natural selection describe how competitive firms triumph over lesser competitive firms, resulting in growth and progress.[ii]

Growing A Business Partnership

In this competitive marketplace, innovation plays an important role as a critical aspect of fomenting economic growth. Even before the complex systems of interrelationships among firms and other actors in a region was described through the biological metaphor, ecosystem, another biological metaphor – evolution – was used to describe progress through the attainment of competitive advantage, ‘survival of the fittest’.

Innovation Studies – emplaced knowledge equals competitive advantage

Innovation studies – while not (yet) a field that is conflated with a discrete academic discipline – considers the dynamism of economic growth and change based upon innovation. A significant body of recent work considers how this relates to geographies and regional economic development.

Cluster theory highlights the way in which geographic concentrations of interrelated businesses (including related supplier networks and associated organizations including research and civic institutions) provide a competitive advantage in particular industry sectors.[iii]

One factor that explains competitive advantage of these so-called clusters is absorptive capacity. Absorptive capacity refers to a firm’s ability to identify, assimilate and apply external technologies to problem solving.[iv] Absorptive capacity is enhanced through collaborative communication, as interactions among different actors having varying pieces of the puzzle share knowledge and experience and device new solutions.

Geographical proximity enhances the effectiveness of collaboration and communication, thereby enabling more robust growth of a region’s ability to innovate and integrate new technology in business practice. Innovation is not confined to the organizational boundaries of a firm; competitiveness involves multi-institutional collaboration is a fluid fashion.

The most productive innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems like Silicon Valley are characterized by a decentralized, highly networked and collaborative industrial culture. In contrast less successful ones retain regressive vestiges of corporate hierarchy.[v]

The roadmap that emerges is formulaic:

The recipe for regional economic development is building an ecosystem – robustly networked – of diverse entities including R&D purveyors and entrepreneurs having synergistic capabilities including a plethora of marketing, legal, finance, and technical resources.

A New, “Local Model” Theory of Innovation

While the biological metaphor of an ecosystem adds depth to understanding that innovation permeates a system and is not contained within the confines of a firm, it still falls short. There are two problems with innovation studies’ view of economic development.

First, innovation studies is overly techno-centric. Scientism in the regional economic development discourse has become pervasive. Research & development at elite academic institutions is privileged over bottom-up approaches. It is critical that innovation be taken off its ‘ivory-tower’ pedestal. Growth-inducing innovation often arises at the grassroots. Sometimes it takes on the form of “user-centered innovation.” [vi] At other times, it is simply indigenous – emplaced – innovation that are simply “original ideas born of creativity and grounded on the uniqueness of each person’s private knowledge, information, and imagination.” (Phelps, ix)

A prerequisite for grassroots or user-centered innovation is people making and doing. Production as an experimental base is a critical infrastructure in healthy ecosystems; privileging science and technology, obscures manufacturing and making. Innovation studies continues to privilege technology commercialization over other grassroots forms of innovation and models of economic development. There is further discussion of this in under the rubric of “Indigenous Innovation”, in the next blog post.

Secondly, normative descriptors yield a cookie-cutter approach to economic development. In the entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems narrative everyone wants to be Silicon Valley when they grow up. Yet, every ecosystem is unique – and must necessarily be. An ecosystem must necessarily be localized to the specific assets of the region. The key to success is not duplicating – but adapting – successful models, situating them in the local context.

By adjusting our approach, democratization of innovation, coupled with adaptive modeling, will fuel entrepreneurial economic development – with huge potential for driving regional economic development in marginalized geographies.

[i] Economist Robert Solow identified the significance of technology in accounting for a large portion of economic growth in the late 1950s.

[ii] Joseph Schumpeter (1942); also Richard R. Nelson and Sidney G. Winter’s An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (1982).

[iii] Michael E. Porter (The Competitive Advantage of Nations, 1990) is one of the most influential scholars of business and economics of the current period.

[iv] Wesley M. Cohen and Daniel A. Levinthal (1990) identify absorptive capacity as a factor that can inhibit or enable competitive advantage.

[v] Annalee Saxenian (Regional Advantage, 1994) undertook a comparative study of Silicon Valley and Route 128 to determine what cultural factors enabled the San Francisco Bay Area to outperform Boston in information technology in the 1980s.

[vi] In Democratizing Innovation (2005), Eric Von Hippel argues that an important source of grassroots innovation is user-centered innovation, a disruptive, entrepreneurial force. Supported by ICT improvements and co-evolving with the free and open-source software movement, user-innovation communities and a rich intellectual commons are giving rise to grassroots innovations and entrepreneurial ecosystems that reach beyond software to improved designs of physical products.

America’s Great Divergence (and why it matters)

There has been an upsurge in interest in regional economic development – and rightly so. The litany of ills in the structure of the U.S. economy – rising income inequality, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, and three decades of wage stagnation – belies another important trend that has been largely overlooked. There is an increasing divide in the economic fortunes among different regions of the United States.

While the gap between the wealthiest and poorest members of society seems to make the news on a weekly basis, few seem to be talking about the disparity between urban centers on the coasts and flyover country. The 1% narrative – brought to the fore by Occupy Wall Street activists – overshadows the regional divergence between “elite” seaboard cities and the heartland.

America’s great divergence represents the reversal of a history of convergence across regions following the Civil War and lasting until the 1980’s. Writing in the Washington Monthly, Phillip Longman argues that the convergence resulted from a century of pulling policy levers ranging from anti-trust laws, to regulation of railroads, airlines, and trucking, as part of a concerted effort of the Federal government to achieve regional parity.

Globalization: more was lost than jobs

America’s great divergence in regional prosperity coincides with shifting gears toward public policies that privileged globalization over autonomy, resulting in the loss of manufacturing jobs. The standard narrative links this loss of manufacturing jobs to the rising income disparity between the coasts and flyover America. However, bringing manufacturing jobs back through renegotiation of trade agreements and enforcing international fair currency and exchange practices isn’t enough to restore robustness to the heartland. It is insufficient because jobs were not all that was lost.

grey jigsaw with missing pieces in the red center

America’s innovation capacity took a hit with manufacturing flight. The divergence in incomes across regions is a symptom, not the underlying cause of the problem.

The issue is not only distributive inequality; it is also about contributive inequities. A regional divergence in incomes represents an uneven distribution of the fruits of labor. But the underlying problem is the capacity of people to solve their own problems through their own inventiveness wanes when there are fewer work opportunities: this is what is meant by the term contributive inequity.

What is needed other than protectionism, is harnessing the power of American ingenuity at the grassroots – at the place of doing and making. Innovation isn’t the exclusive domain of elite research laboratories and universities. Americans from all walks of life have been tinkerers and problem-solvers. Robbing the heartland of its foundation in making undermines both the citizens’ capacity to contribute meaningfully, and, thereby, the security, national competitiveness, and cultural integrity of the United States.

Competitiveness and Security

Technology and innovation have been an integral part of the American narrative of advancement since at least the post-War period. That narrative – famously forged by Vannevar Bush, the head of wartime US government R&D (including the Manhattan Project) – links the imperative of American scientific and economic competitiveness with national security and independence:

A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill. (Bush, 1945)

Bush was writing at a time when the United States was the planet’s manufacturing powerhouse with most of Europe and Japan devastated by the war. He argues for maintaining and further bolstering the nascent research and development capacity developed under the government’s patronage. Bush likens the rejection of government responsibilities for R&D to living off of the fat. Like ‘resting on one’s laurels’, living off the fat entails sloth and consumption instead of responsible investment, frugality, and industriousness.

Science and technology needed to be bolstered in support of these burgeoning productive infrastructures. Since the War, the economy and security of the United States has been well served by its continual investment in cutting-edge research. Now, the situation is reversed.

Industrial know-how has been lost, in addition to lapses in productive capacities, and productive infrastructures need to be built back up in order to realize new (and renewed) knowledge.

Today, “living off of the fat”, means continuing to neglect the productive, physical infrastructure, while doing nothing to reign in the intellectual capital flight of scientific knowledge being put to use beyond our borders, benefiting foreign firms and workers.

The marriage of knowledge produced in research environments with the experimental platforms of American agricultural, extraction and manufacturing industries is critical to national competitiveness and self-sufficiency. Energy security is national security. Food security is national security. Industrial competitiveness – economic self-sufficiency and manufacturing know-how – is a matter of national security. And national identity.

America: A Culture of independence and interdependence

Lately, discussions of inequality most often arise in the context of social justice; however, the motivation for undertaking regional economic development is not social justice. Rather, it is derived from American identity. Beyond national security, the drive for self-sufficiency is a hallmark of national identity: American culture.

American culture is fiercely independent because of the strength of its domestic interdependence. The ideal of the yeoman farmer epitomizes the American virtues of hard work and self-reliance that today characterize the entrepreneurs and small business people that drive this country.

Factory, mine, oil field, construction and maintenance workers have historically formed the backbone of American competitiveness. Identification with this cultural identity weaves a fabric of American interdependence as a component of national identity.

By “living off the fat” in recent years, while industrial infrastructures and productive capacities were compromised, America lost the driving force of innovation in America.

It is in this way that America’s “great divergence” represents a compromise of American cultural integrity.

In Hillbilly Elegy, the New York Times bestseller, J.D. Vance illustrates the links between Appalachian culture and socioeconomic crisis. Although the prevailing narrative focused on economic distress, Vance rightly notes the isolation of people and their alienation from their culture and environment. Solutions to the problem of the great American divergence derive from people connected and emplaced.

Our next post does a deeper dive into the concepts of connectivity and emplacement, discussing how both robust communication and situated innovativeness are the foundations of health ecosystems. We show how ecosystem takes on the meaning of a situated network that helps innovators plant their ideas so that they take root, grow and bear fruit in combination with others.

 

Sources

Bush, Vannevar. Science, The Endless Frontier. Report to the President, Office of Scientific Research and Development, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: National Academies Press, 1945.

Longman, Phillip. “Bloom and Bust.” Washington Monthly, November/December 2015.

 

Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy. New York: Harper, 2016.

Peerdash™ enables the democratization of wealth creation by bringing people to together to solve their own problems

impulse

This post is the first of a five-part series dedicated to exploring how Peerdash™ – the secure collaboration platform – powers robust entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems to achieve economic development in too-often overlooked regions.

The divergence in economic prosperity between elite urban centers on the coasts and the rest of the United States largely has to do with the loss of manufacturing jobs due to the forces of globalization. This is detrimental not only to national security and competitiveness, but also compromises American cultural integrity, which derives its independence from an “integrated interdependence”. Globalization has not only resulted in loss of jobs and livelihoods, but also alienation and isolation.

While industrial infrastructures and productive capacities have been compromised, the country has also lost the innovation capacity that comes out of emplaced ecosystems where people do and make. Remedying this divergence and disintegration takes more than bringing jobs back to America’s Appalachian coalfields, the Gulf Coast, and the Rustbelt. Making and producing sparks indigenous, grassroots ingenuity. Giving it wings takes a flourishing and thoroughly localized innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Ecosystems are built on the foundation of robust communication, and the ability to collaborate across geographical, sectoral and industry boundaries. Regions achieve economic development by leveraging the specificities of their local innovativeness through dynamic collaboration. The key to the digital revolution and the democratization of wealth creation requires enabling people to come together to solve their own problems.

Technology can create these virtual spaces, but it has to be adaptable to the local level. One such example is Peerdash™, a secure collaboration platform that powers robust entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems – alleviating the alienation and isolation that has resulted from globalization.

Creating Innovation: Best recipes come from local ingredients

Apple

The title, “Best recipes come from local ingredients,” is taken from comments by Maryann Feldman, Heninger Distinguished Professor of Public Policy the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I availed myself of the opportunity to participate in a Virginia Tech – Lemelson Center Workshop, “Can Innovators Be Made? A Dialogue on the Past, Present, and Future of Innovation Expertise.” Prof. Feldman’s talk was a highlight of the event, as it deeply resonated with my own thinking on the intersection of economic development and fostering robust environments that support innovation and entrepreneurship.

The opening session of the Workshop launched with discussion of a paper by Matthew Wisnioski (VT Associate Professor of Science & Technology in Society) moderated by Joyce Bedi, Senior Historian at the Lemelson Center. Dr. Bedi opened the discussion with a quick poll of the participants: What’s the first name that comes to mind when I say ‘inventor?’ What’s the first name that you associate with the word ‘innovator’? The overwhelming majority of the participants named Thomas Edison as inventor, and Steve Jobs as innovator. The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation is co-organizer of the workshop; its mission includes broadening the narrative around human ingenuity and creativity.

The Edison/Jobs response is an illustration of implicit bias that inhibits empowerment of would-be innovators and (therefore) inclusiveness of entrepreneurial ecosystems. Implicit bias is a cognitive process that functions at a subconscious level of which, people are too often unaware, yet it deeply influences our perceptions, entrenching stereotype. The thinking goes that we do not see ourselves in the faces of inventors and innovators because they do not look like us, so our brains preclude that possibility from our minds on a level that is below conscious thought.

How many wonderfully creative ideas and ideators are thus excluded from our innovation ecosystems? The relationship of diversity to innovativeness is so commonly discussed it is almost cliché. The richness and diversity of our own communities are strengths to be leveraged. But how often do we see local ingredients in our own neighborhoods that we do not recognize in established ecosystems like Silicon Valley, and, therefore, assume that it’s not the ‘right stuff?’ Perhaps it is not ‘sciency’ or high-tech enough. I particularly enjoyed Prof. Feldman’s term “architectural entrepreneurs,” referring to those who build capacities around themselves in their communities that support their business activity – they’re true ecosystem builders.

To extend the recipe analogy, I cannot argue with the contention that it takes local ingredients. They’re the fresh and unique – overflowing with local color and flavor. But how those ingredients combine and come together matters, too. It takes diverse skill sets that come together in a trusting and mutually empowering fashion to empower innovators to realize the power of their ideas.

Ecosystems Leverage Diversity

Policy-makers often seek to build “knowledge economies,” for their economic development benefits. Universities have historically been the primary generators of new knowledge, and have some of the requisite infrastructures and resources to drive innovation and foster spillovers into the surrounding economy. Silicon Valley has Stanford; the Boston area has MIT; Cambridge (UK) has the University of Cambridge. This concomitance has spawned a whole body of thinking about the interrelationships of universities, and the public and private sectors in fostering innovation-driven economic growth.

In addition to their education and research mandates, universities are often – themselves – stepping up to the role as key players in regional economic development. These institutions wrestle with questions like what their role and priorities should be, and how to foster innovation ecosystems – the self-sustaining networks that create synergies among innovators and enablers.

iStock collaboration cluster innovation

A major pitfall is a cookie-cutter, “one-size-fits-all” approach. Every ecosystem is unique – and must necessarily be. Universities are a diverse lot. Expectations can often be set unrealistically high, because universities operate in resource constrained environments and have diverse histories, capacities, cultures and mandates. Universities face trade-offs among their education, research and community engagement missions. The key is that universities cannot go at it alone. It takes an ecosystem.

This ecosystem includes diverse members of the community ranging from industry and government agencies to associations and other non-governmental organizations. An ecosystem must necessarily be localized to the specific needs of the region. The key to success is not duplicating – but adapting – existing models. As the World Economic Forum prescribes:

“…build the ecosystem on local conditions. Grow existing industries and build on their foundations, skills and capabilities rather than attempting to launch high-tech industries from scratch.”

The secret is structuring effective partnerships public and private sector stakeholders in such a way that addresses the special features of individual communities while acknowledging the diversity of academic institutions. Architecting productive ecosystem-building partnerships involves amplifying a university’s strengths, addressing its shortcomings and carefully aligning with the institution’s unique mix of student success and research capacities, steeped in institutional culture and tradition.

Ecosystem building requires a focus on human capital. It’s all about people, the world’s most underutilized resource. People are the conduits for developing and transferring knowledge and realizing the potential of new knowledge. People, not institutions or intellectual property are nodes in the innovation network. As nodes connect, innovation and growth capacity grow. In her study of university ecosystems, Dr. Ruth Graham extends the analogy: “creating fishermen and not the fish.”

So much of the vibrancy of an ecosystem depends on the human factor. Jason Bloomberg, President of Intellyx, emphasizes the role of how people interact in organizations in achieving exponential innovation:

“…even for the most technical of innovations, the most important component systems of the complex system of systems we call an organization are people, not technology subsystems. Innovation, after all, is a human endeavor. Technology innovation is itself a set of organizational processes.”

To effectively catalyze robust innovation ecosystems, universities and community stakeholders need to focus on people, developing and leveraging a diversity of human capital, the real fuel that builds the knowledge economy.

Instead of emulating others’ successes, it is critical to dig deeper and look at not only what worked, but why. Applying a greater granularity to ecosystem evaluation, it then becomes possible to leverage local strengths and regional needs, and summoning the institutional will to challenge and adapt global “best practices” to suit a unique ecosystem. A culture of evaluation and experimentation needs to be nurtured not only in the research labs, but also in university and public administration.

Adapted from blog content:

http://mariaadouglass.com/2015/01/10/balancing-act/

http://mariaadouglass.com/2014/06/30/inclusive-innovation/