4.26.2017

Innovation Needs Inclusion, Inclusion Needs Innovation (Part I)



In my job I have the pleasure of serving universities throughout the country by helping them tell their economic and social impact stories.  It is work I deeply believe in because I live it.  Penn brought me to Philadelphia, importing my intellectual capital and my purchasing power where it can benefit the local economy.  Speaking of money, all of that spending by students and employees supports a bountiful mix of retail and restaurants that my household is happy to also have access to.  And its investments in this part of Philadelphia have yielded a safe and well-lit urban neighborhood for my family and an award-winning public school for my kids.  I have worked on studies for just about all of the other schools in Philadelphia and they have all had similar impacts throughout the city. 

An increasingly important aspect of regional economic competitiveness is innovation, and an increasingly important aspect of innovation is anchor research institutions.  Innovation matters because our modern knowledge-based economy is driven by scientific discovery and entrepreneurial muscle.  And anchor research institutions matter because they draw in the human and financial capital that innovation activity requires to thrive.

Try to visualize the quintessential innovation location 50 years ago and you would imagine a corporate office park in an isolated suburban location.  Think Bell Labs.  Nowadays, all people talk about are what Brookings Institution coined “innovation districts.”  These are not singular buildings or even campuses but collections of buildings and campuses, anchored by one or more research institutions but you will also find a whole ecosystem of firms of all sizes and functions.  They are distinctly urban, which is to say they are well-served by transit, easily walkable, and amenity-rich.  They are also the opposite of set-aside office parks, in that they are mixed-use, which means plentiful retail and restaurant options; it also means residential neighborhoods, which bring with them real people and real architecture and real foot traffic.  This is now where innovation takes place and where the next wave of innovation workers and innovation funding wants to be.

Guess what?  I just described the place I’ve lived for the past 26 years. 

It is critical to note that my neighborhood also has baggage, from not so commendable moments in its past (and, some might argue, in its present).  Whether it was the “urban renewal” of the 1960’s or modern-day cries against gentrification, many long-time residents of the area have suffered displacement or have reaped very little of the tremendous growth that has occurred here. 

Innovation requires inclusion.  This is true in two ways.  One is that innovation is inherently a social activity.  The myth of the singular innovator having an “a-ha” moment is just that: a myth.  Real innovation happens in groups, and the best innovation happens when those groups are diverse.  One cannot possibly innovate if entire groups of people are systematically excluded from participation, because of race/ethnicity, gender, income, or education.  This is why, when we talk about universities, we are sure to not only talk about innovation and also about access (for these are two hot-button issues that all schools want to highlight) but also the intersection of the two: diversity and financial aid and supportive resources are their own story, and they support a school’s ability to be innovative by making sure that that learning community is inclusive of multiple walks of life and multiple perspectives.

The other way that innovation requires inclusion is what I was saying above, which is that innovation takes place in a place, and that place needs to be inclusive if it is going to be successful.  Innovation people, especially but not just millennials, seek authentic urban spaces to thrive, and part of what makes those spaces authentic and urban is that they are diverse and inclusive, and part of what makes those spaces diverse and inclusive is that people work hard to make it so. Said another way, places that are not diverse and inclusive, and that don't work hard to become diverse and inclusive, languish because innovation people shun them.

Silicon Valley is slowly learning, the hard way, that innovation requires inclusion.  But it’s a difficult and necessary lesson for us all.  And tomorrow I want to talk about how inclusion requires innovation.
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