Monday, September 17, 2012

Innovation never sleeps - wake up North Carolina

Few organisms are more reticent, or slower to change, than a bureaucracy that is convinced it is in the lead.  Once convinced that it is in the lead, a company, a non-profit or yes even a state can become a bit arrogant, and myopic in its world view, comfortable to rest on its laurels rather than reinvest and continue to grow and expand.  Every business, every organism reaches a point of stasis where it plays defense rather than offense.  The question is - can it rediscover the energy and passion that it had when it was hungry?

I've written in the past about my home state - North Carolina - and the challenges that faces the people and the state.  North Carolina is a study in extremes.  Home to banking headquarters, the Wall Street of the South in Charlotte, and the home of many fine universities linked by the Research Triangle Park.  Yet North Carolina has both creative and innovative deserts as well as these oases.  Many geographies and regions in the state are struggling while Charlotte and Raleigh continue to prosper.  North Carolina was once on the forefront of growth and innovation.  In the 1950s North Carolina had the largest economy in the Southeast, and forward thinkers took thousands of acres of worn-out cropland between Raleigh and Durham and made a big bet - they created the Research Triangle Park, which has become a model that is copied in many other regions and even countries.

I think the investments and foresight of the people who created RTP, of the governors who sought investment in the state, who funded roads and infrastructure that led to North Carolina being known as the "good roads state" were invaluable.  But today we are missing that same vision.  An article in the News and Observer on Saturday, September 15 should be a wakeup call for those who believe North Carolina is still a leading economy.  Entitled Is North Carolina losing its once-lofty perch, the article evaluates the competitiveness and innovation in the state over the last century.  The article casts this to some extent as a Republican - Democratic debate, but it is far more than a political discussion.  Once the largest economy in the Southeast, now Virginia, Georgia and Florida are larger.  North Carolina ranks 4th nationwide for unemployment after the recession.  These aren't political issues, they are issues of complacency and stasis. 

While the political sides debate about issues of tax credits or education reform, we could create a new vision for the next 50 years.  Governor Perdue, quoted in the article, said of the people who created RTP:

You had leaders from the public and the private sector who could dream a bigger dream for North Carolina,” she says. “They had those audacious ideas for this state, and they put their money together and took some long-term risk. ...We transformed the economy around people with big, bold ideas

We need that same energy, vision and enthusiasm now.  Most of the people who were BORN when RTP was created are now approaching retirement.  The concept of a large research site was valuable at that time and place, but we may need a new vision for North Carolina, less focused on a geography and more focused on sparking a lot of new innovations.  Those innovation should come in the government setting, the academic setting and the business world.  North Carolina should be an incubator and a laboratory of innovation.

To give credit where it is due, other states have noticed the opportunity to use a vision and to spark innovation.  Colorado just launched its COIN (Colorado Innovation Network) and states like Rhode Island have programs like the Business Innovation Factory.  These states have managed to bring together enough critical mass, and to create a vision that reinforces the importance of innovation across the government, academics and business.  We can do the same.

North Carolina's future isn't a political football.  It isn't up to one side or the other.  It's time we all got behind a big new vision for the state.  RTP served a wonderful purpose, but today's innovation needs to be more distributed across the state, and more attuned to the virtual nature of business and society.  Our vision needs to reinforce innovation in government, to make it more effective and accountable.  It needs to focus on innovation in academic settings, from kindergarten to the collegiate level.  New methods of education and learning are unfolding.  We should be at the forefront. 

We have all the puzzle pieces in this state - a wealth of smart people, a diverse economy, excellent universities, good businesses and entrepreneurs.  We are well positioned geographically and have the size and heft to be a leader domestically.  We need to reclaim the leadership we once had, not just of the Southeast, but of the nation, and prepare ourselves to compete, and out-innovate other regions and yes other countries.  We no longer compete just with Virginia or Georgia, but with Finland and Qatar and China as well.  Our pace of change must at least match theirs, otherwise we are doomed to fall behind.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:24 AM


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