Creating Innovation: Best recipes come from local ingredients


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: