Over the years, I’ve written extensively about seeding innovation ecosystems in developing and transition economies. Traditionally, models from innovation-driven economies are deployed in developing nations. Failure is often the result, due to local needs, capacities and solutions being ignored. The creation of sustainable economies requires supportive ecosystems that are contextualized: steeped in the local sense of place.
As an international development professional, I see this problem mirrored in domestic economic development – importing business models as opposed to organic, regional growth – especially within under-served communities.
I am from Appalachia, where people are deeply rooted in tradition. Innovation comes slowly. For every community like Palo Alto or Mountain View, where ideas and technology successfully develop into thriving business hubs, there are hundreds more that lack access to basic resources to support entrepreneurship and technology commercialization. In fact, when it comes to existing innovation infrastructures, many places in the United States have more in common with emerging markets than they do with Silicon Valley.
Innovation has the awesome potential to empower people – minorities, women, and under-served or under-represented groups – to create wealth and sustainable growth in their own communities. Humans are natural ideators, and innovation can take root and flourish wherever there is a supportive infrastructure.
The key is ecosystems that non-traditional entrepreneurs can leverage to create mutual benefit and community economic strength. However, brand-new, inclusive innovation ecosystems require special care:
- Recognizing different levels and kinds of tacit knowledge brought by people from different communities
- Engaging multiple stakeholders – such as universities, industry leaders and regional agencies – to bring together enabling skill sets from diverse sources
- Finding innovators developing solutions that will benefit their communities and lead to the greatest public benefit
Fortunately, building domestic innovation ecosystems has fewer barriers than trans-national efforts. Although domestic cultural differences certainly exist between geographies and regions, they may be smaller than those between one country and another. Language barriers, if any, are less significant. And legal and regulatory differences that often cause roadblocks in international projects are absent.
However, the model remains untested. Concerted efforts to develop truly inclusive innovation ecosystems that focus on technology-driven wealth creation here in the United States do not yet exist. While cross-cutting stakeholder groups in places like Austin, Texas and Cleveland, Ohio – locales where ecosystems did not arise organically – have pulled together to foster innovation ecosystems, the degree to which they serve otherwise under-represented segments of the population is unclear.
Based on my experience, efforts to create inclusive innovation ecosystems in the U.S. should share the following characteristics:
- They should be grown from within. Successful innovation ecosystems must be based on a profound understanding of a community’s strengths, challenges, stakeholder groups, and existing infrastructure and resources. Outsiders, however well-meaning, can’t achieve this understanding on their own. For this reason, ecosystem builders should look for local champions, whether in regional economic development groups, chambers of commerce, or elsewhere, who can help lead efforts and provide insight and unique skill sets. Human-centered design principles must form the underpinnings of strong collaboration to bridge the gap.
- They should be assembled mindfully. Simply knowing a community’s key players and resources isn’t enough. The “how”—the way all of the people and pieces interact—matters too. Often, building a new innovation ecosystem means bringing together stakeholders who historically may not have worked together. This brings needed diversity—but also adds complexity. In order to work together successfully, all stakeholders must learn from each other and develop strong, trust-based collaboration.
- They should play to members’ strengths. It should go without saying that a key component of inclusivity is the engagement of minorities, women, and other potentially under-served or underrepresented groups. Among the many benefits of working with minority entrepreneurs is that one may encounter an atypical level of tenacity and commitment. All successful entrepreneurs have faced obstacles, but those from minority groups have likely overcome more than those from backgrounds of relative privilege. Building stronger collaboration enables entrepreneurs to harness their experiences and use what they know to educate others in the ecosystem.
At the heart of these recommendations are not technologies and capital but rather human beings and their relationships. People – the most valuable resource of all – remains underused, both abroad and at home. I look forward to seeing innovation ecosystems flourish here in the United States that include and embrace all groups.
My advice: Connect and support people, and success will follow.
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