The Ecology of Innovation

Written by John M. Eger

The recently announced seminar of the Urban Land Institute, in partnership with the prestigious Aspen Institute, champions the idea there is a new “innovation ecology,” a term first coined by computer science guru William A. Wulf, shaping our landscape — an ecology that influences land use and spells economic development.

There are many people who find only physical or concrete evidence of the power of “creative places” convincing. If, however, we build the new architecture, the creative clusters of the new economy, the tide may turn in favor of the idea that the arts are not just “nice but necessary.”

In just the last few years a lot has been happening — in the media, in key charter schools and in communities across America — demonstrating the vital role the arts play not only in fostering community but also economic development. But perhaps what the developers, the architects, and city planners are starting to say and do may raise the bar — let us see the future, not just talk about it — in a way that moves more of us to become proactive.

Together, ULI San Diego/Tijuana and Aspen have created the “Global Forum on the Culture of Innovation … to share the latest thinking and explore successful innovation ecologies across a variety of scales — from building, to cluster, to district, to city. The goal of the Forum is to illuminate the conditions and strategies conducive to building sustainable, idea-generating environments in order to drive 21st Century economic development and generate real estate value.”

The Forum will be held at Balboa Park in San Diego, September 5-6, following a debate in the Park between the two leading candidates for Mayor, sponsored in part by KPBS-TV, and a new San Diego Alliance for Innovation, a loose collaborative of organizations and individuals urging the region to adopt more policies and initiatives encouraging creativity and innovation.

Sure, everybody seems to appreciate a good play, recognize an exceptional painting, or herald a talented musician … even applauding exciting street art or graffiti (well, maybe not everybody). But simply appreciating or praising the role of art and culture, and hoping for a brighter future, is not enough in the wake of the so-called “jobless recovery.”

Now, as author Thomas Friedman has put it in The World is Flat, “globalization” is here. The idea that everybody and everything is now connected, and every nation, every community and every individual is now competing with every other is being felt by the US economy. Creativity and innovation, still not well defined, is where the new jobs are, where America’s future lies.

As Steve Jobs reportedly told President Barack Obama at a dinner in Silicon Valley, the jobs in China making the iPhone “aren’t coming back.” Outsourcing, off-shoring, indeed globalization, is something we have to live with. After the dust settles — which should happen in the next few years — America will come to realize what Steve Jobs was talking about.

Today, it is a fact that America must innovate to compete in the new economy and society. But we cannot have innovation without creativity. And we cannot have an innovation region by just wishing it were so.

While there are many things every city and every region must do to make their communities highly livable, and attract, nurture and retain the best and brightest, a truly creative and innovative community understands that a global knowledge-based economy has evolved. Such communities represent our salvation only if the city is willing to change, to aggressively embrace the principals of freedom, free enterprise and entrepreneurship, and highly value its art and cultural assets.

Importantly, telecommunication has replaced transportation and affects land use and zoning rules and regulations, and we must acknowledge, and encourage the new incubators of creativity, the so-called creative clusters combining business, education, art and cultural institutions. Downtowns are the new living rooms of a region and metropolitan “regions” — not just cities — are the new centers of commerce that exist within larger economic regions.

In the past few weeks, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has awarded 80 “Our Town” grant awards representing almost $5 million dollars for “creative placemaking” in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Combined with grants from 2011, the NEA has invested $11.58 million in Our Town projects in all 50 states and DC.

We are not talking about a lot of money but the grants themselves are often the stimulus communities need to begin the effort at cooperation. According to the NEA, the projects “help transform communities into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core. The grantee projects will improve quality of life, encourage creative activity, create community identity and a sense of place, and help revitalize local economies.”

Whether the money comes from from the NEA or from private investors, all the cities in a region must learn to work together to compete in the global economy, and real estate developers, city planners and architects, arts and cultures executives, educations and politicians alike must join forces to renew and reinvent their community for the new knowledge age.

About John M Eger

John M. Eger

John M. Eger, Van Deerlin Endowed Professor of Communications and Public Policy and Director of the Creative Economy Initiative at San Diego State University teaches in the School of Journalism and Media Studies, and the SDSU Honors Program.
He is an author and lecturer on the subjects of creativity and innovation, education and economic development, and also serves as President of The World Foundation for Smart Communities, a research and educational organization dedicated to helping local communities connect to the global economy.

A former Adviser to two Presidents and Director of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy he helped spearhead the restructuring of America’s telecom Industry and was Senior Vice President of CBS responsible for worldwide enterprises, which opened China to commercial television.

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The Ecology of Innovation

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