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.


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.

We need inclusion-powered problem-solving — ASAP

This reflection is an expansion on a theme from the upcoming book, Everybody Innovates Here, coming at the end of January. To read more excerpts and get news about its launch, check out This reflection is also cross-posted at that location.

Human diversity and inclusion are two of the most powerful tools we have to solve the tough problems that have been eluding us — for the simple reason that no one person can have all the information and experiences and insights within her or himself alone to crack through the barriers that have been blocking us. Whether social, political, environmental… we are in desperate need of paradigm changes, and we know from history that paradigm changes don’t come from the insiders.

But our skill sets for capitalizing on diversity and inclusion are among our worst, overall. We do a terrible job of using those benefits. Our deep-seated assumptions about who has relevant knowledge and who doesn’t, whose voice should be heard and whose should be held in a box labelled “input or “research, “ who should make the decisions and who should accept them and go along with them….

Our assumptions are outdated. They have been wrecked by poor use. They lack legitimacy in a world that senses, that knows, that there is a big something missing.

But we don’t have the skills and the language and the systems to pull that something missing out into the open.

So the block continues to grow, and the problems continue to fester, across nearly every aspect of the modern world.

  • Corporations seeking big breakthroughs find very few of them, despite millions of dollars and hours spent chasing them.
  • Small businesses and entrepreneurs flounder in mental isolation, spending precious years on solutions that don’t accurately fit the kind of problems that matter.
  • Nonprofits and other organizations that are trying to solve tough problems cannot get past twiddling at the edges, or they limit their impact to one small corner of the world and fail to spread to the extent of the actual need.
  • And governments, everyone’s favorite whipping post, struggle to provide what they need to provide in a poisoned environment, in part of their own making.

In a world that has so many unmet, acute, urgent needs — needs that solving would unlock real value — why aren’t we doing it?

Some pundits may pin it on human self-centeredness, or Machiavellian political urges, or the fact that new ideas are just hard. But we’ve done hard and noble and groundbreaking things before. We’re doing them now — just not enough and not fast enough.

The root source of our current blocks isn’t technical — we have technologies that our grandparents could not have imagined. It’s not strictly political — governments have driven great strides in human health and well being in the past 200 years. And it’s not that people have somehow fundamentally shifted from effective to floundering: despite the hand wringing in the daily news, we know that there’s nothing new under the sun in human behavior and morals. Across the millennia to today, what we’re seeing is mostly variations on a theme.

The core difference now is that the issues that bedevil us lie beyond the scope of what we could address with our Industrial Era tools — specialization, hierarchy, efficiency, professionalism. The biggest issues facing us cross a range of scientific or technical bailiwicks, demonstrating the most need at the intersections of the topics that we have carefully divided from each other by degrees and professional memberships.

And increasingly, the division between the human mind and heart — the emphasis on rational solutions over intuition, intellectual solutions over the human need for solidarity and stability, analytical and design-informed methods of problem-solving — all of these create magma domes under our collective rational exteriors. Those divisions threaten, they sow fear, they further block real solutions, they twist decision-making and solution-doing in ways that can undercut more than they solve.

The core challenge in front of us in the new economic/social/cultural era that is dawning is to take apart our no-longer-necessary blocks and learn to harness human creativity, human learning, and the full range of human insight in ways that we have not before. This means that our basic methods for how we do the work of advancing humanity is going to have to become very different, just as the skills we used to harvest rye in the 1600s bore little resemblance to the Ford assembly line of the 1910s. That’s the kind of profound everything-change we’re going to have to undergo.

But we don’t have a few hundred years to fight through the transition this time. Between global warming and global urbanization and a host of other significant challenges, our window for a successful transition is a whole, whole lot shorter.

I don’t know how to solve those global challenges, but I have learned that the best way to find genuinely new solutions is most clearly seen at the opposite end of the scale from the global: in groups of people who bring the most diverse possible range of skills, experiences, outlooks and perspectives to work together in in true collaboration — I often say co-creation. These are the kinds of teams that find, understand and figure out how to use the treasures in the spaces in between our individual domains.

But we don’t do that by the seat of the pants. We aren’t genetically wired or culturally acclimated to work with people who are different from us. Both our in-bred defensive mechanisms and our cultural learning actually pushes, hard, against that kind of openness. We came up as tribal people, after all, and Us vs. Them lies deep in our psyches.

But us vs them looks pretty likely to take us all out, if we don’t learn to work around it.

We’ve done this before — agriculture, formal education, social niceties, riding a bicycle, all required us to work around our urges and assumptions and long-learned behaviors from earlier eras. And often those long-learned behaviors had to do with fear of others. We can certainly do it again.

But co-creation with diverse people is a learned skill, not an innate talent. If we truly intend to capitalize on our potential, to find the solutions to the tough problems, we can’t keep doing it the same way. We need to build, learn, teach and use new ways of working together. And we have to replace our old methods with the systems, the processes, the paradigms that reinforce this new approach. And that’s not just an exercise for the classroom, or the corporate office, or for the city council chambers. It’s in all of them, across all of them.

We can do this. But we have to start. As soon as we can.

The Haze and the Pardigm shift

This article explores a theme from the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here: Accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship through your entire community. Click Here to learn more about the book and sign up for updates.

Anticipating what the future will look like has seldom been harder to do, and more important all at the same time. In an era of unrelenting change and few certainties, trying to predict what next year holds might actually be harder than predicting the longer term. The foreground, contrary to our usual assumptions, becomes hazier and harder to differentiate than the future.

Stowe Boyd of Workfutures hit this issue at the beginning of January, and in the process he put his fingers on a few of the most crucial elements of that longer-term view – the elements that we here often describe as keys to a Future-Ready Workforce (and that I describe in the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here) as the characteristics of the Fusion Economy).

Making these kinds of changes in the fundamentals of how we work isn’t easy – it requires us to challenge our assumptions constantly, to adapt, to grow in ways that we never thought we would have to grow. And that means that our personal short term, and that of our businesses, become messy and confused and contradictory as well.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear what the business (and person) of the future has to be able to do, and our key challenge at the moment is to get there.

Here is how Stowe describes this emerging paradigm shift {the bullets below are directly quoted from this piece):

  • Human-centered not role-centered. We lose a great deal when we limit people to only thinking about or acting on a limited set of activities in business. A machine press operator can have a brilliant insight that saves the copy millions, and a field sales lead can come back from a meeting with a customer suggestion for a breakthrough new product. But not if they are punished for stepping outside the painted lines on the floor. People can be larger than their job descriptions, if we let them.
  • Open not closed models of thinking and operations. This means a ‘yes, and’ mindset, where we consider alternatives rather than rejecting them because they are novel. This means activity rooting out systemic anti-creative and anti-curiosity patterns in business dogma. It means embracing Von Foester’s Empirical Imperative: Always act to increase the set of possibilities.
  • Fast-and-loose not slow-and-tight operations. Agile, flexible, and adaptive methods of organizing, cooperating, and leading are needed. A less bureaucratic management style would increase innovation, and lead to building business operations around experiments rather than only well-established processes.
  • Heterarchical not hierarchical operations. The bronze age rule of kings, supposedly selected by the gods and legitimized by their personal charisma has led to terrible results, with narcissistic sociopaths all too often calling the shots. The occasional Steve Jobs or Yves Chouinard does not disprove the problems inherent to top-down-only organizations, especially in a time of great change and uncertainty. Organizational structure is another means to the ends that companies are created to effect, and serves as a powerful barrier to change when treated as sacred and inviolable.
  • Forward-focused, not tradition-bound. We need to adopt a new paradigm for business, one that explicitly breaks with a great deal of what passes for conventional wisdom, organized around new science, new forms of social connection, and leveraging the possibilities in the points made above. And science is not standing still, so we must incorporate new understanding into our work and the operations of business.

This is what we designed Econogy to build – in new professionals, in businesses and in communities.

The foreground is sometimes hazier than we’d prefer, but we’re moving toward that future – faster and faster.

I hope you’ll join us.