The Pursuit of (Meaningful) Innovation: Lessons from the City
My Ph.D. thesis revolved around the question of how we can promote the most beneficial innovation for a country or region. When I traveled to the U.S. for the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, I had this question in mind, and found some answers from an unexpected source: cities.
This realization became strikingly apparent in Memphis, a city that seemed to be reassessing itself and trying to make it into the innovation landscape. The people we met there shared a passion to make their city thrive, but somehow were still in the process of figuring out how. And that is precisely what made it so interesting. In my view, their struggle is not very different to that of my home city in the northwest of Spain, or to many other cities on both sides of the Atlantic: how to be a city not only of the present but also of the future, how to remain innovative and prosperous for the good of its citizens.
As cities worldwide aspire to be more innovative, competition for talent is increasing and becoming more global. Thus, making your city a place where people want to live, where people are willing to move to, can be crucial to attract the human capital that enables innovation. Therefore, we should not underestimate the importance of good schools, something with which Memphis seemed to be struggling: schools are not only key to advancing the education of the next generation of talent, but also to attracting existing talent (after all, if you have kids, wouldn´t this be a critical concern when you´re deciding which city to move to?). Bridging the skills mismatch and building on diversity are also very relevant challenges for increasing human capital for innovation.
However, human capital per se is not sufficient to create an innovation ecosystem. Interconnections are crucial as well. Innovation very rarely emerges from independent efforts, but much more often from cross-pollination of ideas and collaboration. Thus, the engagement of different actors through partnerships for a common goal can be particularly powerful. In Memphis I had the opportunity to discover a beautiful example: a nonprofit organization created "as part of a citywide effort to foster economic growth by building on Memphis's strengths...". Their board of directors includes professionals from different industries, universities and civil society, and it is founded both from corporate and philanthropic contributions and public grants. A true joint effort for the development of the city.
These considerations about human capital and networks of collaboration are important to create the right conditions for innovation to happen, but shouldn’t we reflect on what type of innovation we are looking for? I believe cities, just like countries or regions, should aim to pursue innovation that best contributes to the enhancement of welfare, not only in economic terms, but also in social and environmental terms. In an era when innovation has become something of a buzzword, it is perhaps even more important to note that it should not be about promoting innovation for the sake of it, it should be about promoting meaningful innovation, change that makes sense in the given context and that contributes to the advancement of wellbeing.
Adela Conchado, Ph.D. candidate at Comillas University, is a Spring 2015 European Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.