The Innovation Infrastructure

This article is a draft excerpt from the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here: Developing a higher-impact, more sustainable, more effective system to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship. Click Here to learn more about the book and sign up for updates.

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People who work in innovation and entrepreneurship are accustomed to hearing and using all sorts of terms — and like a lot of terms, sometimes different people don’t mean exactly the same thing by the same set of syllables.  “Districts” and “Ecosystems,” for example, has been coming into vogue lately to describe a collection of activities and programs and people working to increase or strengthen entrepreneurship in a given area, but it’s not always clear what’s inside or outside the ecosystem, or how exactly they do (or should) interact.

We can stretch the analogy a bit by saying that, while we might know a decent amount about the biology of individual businesses, and we might have figured out some best practices for operating some of these components, we are just at the beginning of the environmental sciences phase of innovation ecosystems.

Later in this book, we’ll try to land on more precise definitions of these ecosystems and their parts — as your sixth grade science teacher said, classification is crucial to being able to study something.  But in the title of this chapter, I introduced a whole ‘nother word — “infrastructure.”

As if this wasn’t already confusing.  Let me explain why.

By this point, I think most people have at least a passing familiarity with the term “infrastructure” (that wasn’t the case when I started my urban planning career a couple decades ago).  We’ve all seen enough news articles proclaiming the dire conditions of our roads, sewers, water pipes, etc. to know that infrastructure generally refers to the things and systems that most of us don’t think about often, but that allow modern life to happen.  Bridges, pumping stations, canal locks, fiber optic cables,  electrical substations, rail lines…all these things make up our infrastructure.

When they fit together correctly, and each part does its job right, then they do the things we need them to do so well that we easily forget that they’re there.  When they don’t…in the case of of physical infrastructure, we know it needs to get fixed, fast, because our civilization depends on it.

The only difference with innovation infrastructure is that it’s not fully developed, and we haven’t become accustomed to having it work well yet.  But as we’ll see in an upcoming chapter, we have to get it built, fast.

The reason why I used the term “infrastructure” instead of “ecosystems” or systems or something like that is because we need to increase the intentionality of our work to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship.

When engineers design a neighborhood, or even a collection of a few buildings, they put hours upon hours into assessing electric loads, managing projected stormwater runoff, evaluating the tensile strength of the steel deck on the bridge. And they pay very close attention to how the pieces connect with each other.  If the bridge deck isn’t connected to the piers properly, or the substation is under-capacity for peak electric demand, or if the parking lot will triple the amount of water that rushes into the creek with a normal rain, then even the best-designed individual component will not have much benefit, and could cause a lot of damage.

It is in the connectivity, the interrelations, that an infrastructure does its work.

We are at a very early stage in building our innovation infrastructure.  Sometimes we find that we have built a culvert that runs cross-ways to where the water is running, or we designed a road for a lot more traffic than it ended up carrying.  And that’s OK. We’re still learning.

But as we will discuss, the pressures that the emerging economy are placing on our communities and our economies and our people and businesses means that we have to accelerate our own learning about how to build this infrastructure.  We have to get much better at it, much faster.  And as early civil engineers found, sometimes that means that we have to be prepared to take apart one of the things we built, and rebuild it to tie more effectively into the system.

Let’s be clear:  when we are talking about Innovation Infrastructure, we aren’t talking about Google Fiber and wet labs, although those are elements that can be helpful.  And we aren’t just talking about assisted bike lanes and pop-up parks, although those can be nice and certainly help a place project a certain image. But those things are just bits of the system, not the whole.

Instead Innovation Infrastructure is the intentionally interrelated, mutually-reinforcing system of activities, places, organizations, businesses and people that have the collective effect of accelerating innovation across the full spectrum of human activity.  That last phrase is also important – critically important, not just for good PR, but for innovators to be able to make the profound impact we all need them to create.  But more on that soon.

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