Wow, it must be Back to Basics Week at the ol’ Prosperity Blog. First “Regionalism,” then “Taxes” and now “Innovation.” I’m going to have to start my posts from now on with the old cheesy book report line, “Webster’s Dictionary defines innovation as…”

Here’s the thing about innovation. Innovation is like coolness. Everyone wants it, and the harder you try to get it, the more it slips through your fingers.

And yet, everyone is trying to capture this lightning in a bottle. The state’s economic development commission has made innovation its mission, and Secretary Locke is starting an Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

To me, there’s only one kind of investment by government that actually fosters innovation: investments in education. Growing smart, creative, talented people is what allows someone to have one of those lightbulb moments that says “we could put this Internet thing on a cell phone” or “what if we used an automobile fuel that wasn’t carbon based.” Everything else is just development and commercialization of an innovation. Of course, those things are hugely important, and we desperately need as many resources and support mechanisms as possible to do them, but I think the distinction is useful. When you’re trying to invest in something, you’re going to be most successful when you can be as specific as possible.

My favorite poster in the whole world – even more than Dogs Playing Poker – is the Washington Technology Industry Association’s Puget Sound Tech Universe. It just goes to show you how awesome it is to have large clusters of smart people, because they will then go off and be smart about new things and, with the right help, will form companies that create jobs and import wealth into the region. But you never could have planned on exactly how that universe would develop…it’s the smart people equivalent of monkeys with typewriters eventually coming up with Shakespeare plays: you know it’s going to happen, but will it be an IT Hamlet or a Biotech King Lear?

I guess there is one more thing besides investing in education that facilitates pure innovation. The Prosperity Partnership – as part of its work with the International Benchmarking Consortium – is working on a paper about how regions around the world attract and retain talent. And we know the central Puget Sound is really good at that; we have super smart people moving here from around the world to work at our companies. But we also know that we’re not nearly as good at educating our own citizens to that level, which is unsustainable in the long run for a wide variety of reasons.

So I’m proposing a new economic indicator, modeled after the U.S. Trade Balance. I call it the Puget Sound Region Smart People Balance (I’m open to significantly better names, if you have an idea). You take the number of well-educated people working in our region’s knowledge economy that grew up here and subtract the number of well-educated people working in our region’s knowledge economy that didn’t grow up here. The goal is to get to at least zero, if not a positive number. That way, you ensure that you’ve got all the ingredients for innovation in a long-term sustainable way. The rest is up to the monkeys and their typewriters.

2 Responses to Innovation

  1. I won’t argue that education is a critical success factor and often it is the key to entering the kingdom. And I certainly believe in life long learning. But it doesn’t have any correlation to Entrepreneurialism ( willingness to risk it all on your conviction and confidence in your ideas) or the ability to be innovative. These traits are not generally nurtured nor are they promoted in academia. There are some exceptions like the School of Entrepreneurialism at WSU or UW, but as good as they are they have very low attendance. These traits in my experience tend to be developed through risk taking and natural genetics. Innovators look at an object or process or idea and can visualize how they could be something never imagined or used in some totlaly different way. The Entreprenuer knows how to capitalize on that new idea or application. The challenge these people often have unless they have been successful serial entreprenuers is access to capital. Now if Gary Locke can find a solution to that challenge and how to vet out the ideas I think we might see something real happen.

  2. Lew McMurran says:

    Eric, thanks for the reference to our Puget Sound Tech Universe poster.

    I would liken innovation to pornography–I can’t really define it but I know it when I see it.

    I would also take issue with the “only one kind of investment by government that actually fosters innovation” comment. Gov’t sponsored/funded basic research can spur innovation. Tax credits for R&D, like we have in this state (that need to be made permanent) are another thing gov’t can do to promote innovation. Generally getting out of the way of entrepreneurs would also be helpful.

    Clearly the development and attraction of talent is number one. However, our education system (esp. K-12) is so non-innovative that it seems almost impossible for innovation to occur there. I mean, we are still operating a K-12 system geared for the agricultural era, much less for the information age.

    Thanks for discussion the topic, though. It does seem to be the trendy economic development issue right now.

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