Innovation, Change, Bring It On

Needed: Urban Innovation Hot Spots

Cities should become living innovation labs, says Saul Kaplan. Only then will we come up with bold system changes that work

By Saul Kaplan

I have been asked by Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative of foundations and financial institutions, to participate in an upcoming economic development roundtable, Changing the Trajectory of an Urban Economy, taking place in Detroit on Mar. 5. Organizers asked each of the participants, public and private-sector leaders from across the country, to provide an answer to the following question:

Given your experience, what are the most “game-changing” ways to use $100 million-plus to change the trajectory of an urban economy?

In other words, if I were given a free hand to use $100 million-plus of grants, what would I do? Here is my answer. I suggest that we turn cities into innovation hot spots.

We are playing defense based on old industrial economy rules and systems. We must play offense to create a 21st century innovation economy in which all citizens can fully participate. A new national economic development conversation should bubble up from cities.

Cities should be living labs. If cities become innovation hot spots, new investment and jobs will be created. We need ongoing R&D for new transformative models and systems. Developing a 21st century innovation economy depends on it and would also enable solutions for the big system challenges we face, such as health care, education, workforce development, and energy sustainability. These are system challenges that will not be fixed with incremental tweaks. We must design, demonstrate, and deploy new system approaches to these challenges. And the solutions should be coming from our cities.

The good news is that given the scope of the economic challenges our cities face, there is more receptivity to innovation than ever. The bad news is that we have turned innovation into a buzzword. Everyone and everything is an innovation, and of course when that happens no one and nothing is. We have to get below the buzzwords.

Targeted Group of Cities

Cities offer a perfect nexus and can catalyze economic transformation. Cities comprise emergent networks with the assets necessary to become innovation hot spots. We should help turn a targeted group of cities into innovation hot spots to serve as national and global models for economic transformation. They can demonstrate to the nation and to the world that all citizens can participate in an innovation economy and become active R&D labs for solving the big system challenges of our day.

So, if I could deploy $100 million (not nearly enough money, but a good start), I would launch a new initiative: “Cities as Innovation Hot Spots.” Cities would compete to be one of four selected to become partners in a national program to create models and tools to strengthen the innovation capacity of our nation’s urban centers. They would become places to experiment with new ways of dealing with important social issues—always with an eye to rolling them out nationwide. Too much of our current effort is incremental and fragmented. Too much government and foundation investment is spread thin among the usual suspects and goes toward solutions that will only serve to sustain our current systems. Instead, we need to invest in platforms that can make necessary disruptive change better understood and safer to scale.

Cities as Innovation Hot Spots would be a catalyst for that change and a real-world lab to advance new system solutions across the country. The four selected cities would be connected in a national network and would share a common framework for defining economic development objectives and measuring progress. Each city would target specific focus areas (health care, education, energy, transportation, housing, workforce development, etc.) for system design and experimentation in the real-world labs of their cities. An Innovation Story Studio would be shared across the target cities to package and share the stories of progress in order to create an emotional connection and strong grassroots engagement both within and across target cities.

We need to learn how to design and explore new systems while pedaling the bicycle of our current systems. We need safe and manageable environments to experiment at the systems level. So let’s identify four cities with the necessary public and private-sector leadership, institutional capacity for change, and a motivated community to make the local commitment necessary to serve as national examples for the transformation we so desperately need.

And bear in mind, we don’t have to invent anything new to transform our economic, health care, education, and energy systems. It is not technology that is getting in our way. We have more technology available to us today than we know how to absorb or put to work. It is humans and the organizations we live in that are both stubbornly resistant to change. The silos and systems we are stuck in have evolved over a long period of time. They are well-intentioned but fossilized, not capable of disrupting themselves to take advantage of those new technologies to enable new solutions and better value for citizens, students, and patients. We need a new model for showing that alternative approaches work in the real world and can scale. We have to create the environment and platforms that can enable that systems-level experimentation and change.

It’s time to start playing offense. Let’s get below the buzzwords of innovation and turn our cities into innovation hot spots. Yes, there are lots of details to work out. Let’s work them out together. Our citizens are waiting.

Source: Business Week Online – March 1, 2010