Innovation in Our Cities is Easier Said Than Done

by Patrick Lefler

Innovation in Our Cities is Easier Said Than DoneRecently one of the blogs featured in the Harvard Business Review’s The Conversation featured a story about recent efforts of Kentucky’s two largest cities–Louisville and Lexington–to promote innovation. In a post titled Will the Sun Shine Bright on Kentucky Innovation?, author Saul Kaplan highlighted a recent visit to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky where he spoke with local entrepreneurs and community leaders about what it takes to spur innovation and entrepreneurship in the region.

One of the points made by the author was that it was vital to think about the challenge of fostering entrepreneurship and innovation at the city level – and that these two cities (Louisville and Lexington) have the potential to lead the way by becoming innovation hotspots. What the author fails to communicate is exactly what that potential is and how it’s superior in relation to other regions in the state. In a telling paragraph within the article, this potential (‘hope’) seems to be based more on something magical, than on substance:

Each has a deep and rich economic heritage to draw on — and to overcome — in that quest. Louisville’s economic legacy is that of a classic industrial-era city; Lexington, only 75 miles north, has a predominantly agrarian heritage, centered on the region’s many beautiful and expansive horse farms. In both cities, even as people take pride in the past, some worry that it hasn’t equipped them to build new engines of regional prosperity and job creation. It’s a concern I see in cities in every mature economy that once lived in high-growth prosperity but no longer do. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, they yearn to get back to it, but think it might take something magical, the economic equivalent of ruby red slippers, to effect the change.

The post goes on to talk about the enthusiasm displayed by the politicians and the entrepreneurs themselves. Don’t get me wrong, enthusiasm is great, but it won’t get you past the first stage of idea generation. Ideas are easy to generate; they’re dime a dozen. But the tough part of innovation is taking the myriad ideas that come from these budding entrepreneurs and applying the critical thinking and execution necessary to transform ideas into successful market solutions – that’s where the real money is either made or lost. Nowhere is this critical ingredient mentioned because most community leaders (a) don’t appreciate or even understand this skill, and (b) don’t care about it because it’s not ‘sexy enough’ to resonate with the general public which means…it won’t get them votes.

And finally, the post talks about some of the training that these future entrepreneurs have been provided, but again, nowhere does it mention the critical thinking and execution skills necessary for ultimate success.

Soon to be part of the local workforce, they are also trained to be entrepreneurial in whatever they do, and eager to make a difference. They are the net-generation, with an unprecedented ability to self-organize, mobilize social change, and create their own economic opportunities. They don’t need ruby red slippers.

They may not need ruby red slippers, but they do need more training in some of the less exotic (but vastly more important) skill-sets of problem solving, decision making and execution.

Here’s the takeaway: For innovation to succeed in our cities (or anywhere else for that matter), critical thinking and execution skills need to be stressed much more than enthusiasm and passion.


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Patrick LeflerPatrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group – a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.

No comments

  1. You hit the nail on the head. The tough part of innovation and entrepreneurship is the infrastructure and support communities provide that help execute on ideas. Usually not sexy or worthy of press. Not enough is said about this by politicians or organizations.

  2. Some good points in the article, Patrick. Of course it depends on the ‘stage’ a city is at in the change process. Lexington is at a different stage of change process to Austin or Pittsburgh or Seattle, for example.

    I’m Executive Director of 2thinknow, overseeing the Innovation Cities™ Program, and publishing the Innovation Cities™ Index since 2007. See: http://www.innovation-cities.com

    This Program provides answers as to the ‘how’ of innovation in cities for their leaders. It’s the leading program of it’s type globally, commercial, market-oriented and independent of competing interests that frustrate governmental and NGO programs.

    Any city organizations can email us: talk@2thinknow.com for assistance.

    Keep innovating™

    Christopher Hire
    Exec Dir, 2thinknow ICP

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