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How to Drive Innovation in any Community 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

Municipalities are in a "global war" for talent and the tools to innovate. But like with any conflict, there’s always merit in working together.

That’s according to Christopher Gergen, a Durham-based but nationally known driver of growth, entrepreneurialism, retention, innovation and placemaking at the local level – and he believes town government has a great part to play in that.

"Where the rubber hits the road is within the context of local government, local municipalities and the way that we can begin the work together," he told a packed room of state government, municipal and private sector officials at a conference put on by State Treasurer Janet Cowell this past spring. The focus was the connection between innovation and community stability.

And the conversation wasn’t just about tech startups in the big, buzzing  cities. It was all about how localities can stand above, extend hands to their neighbors, and create a strong web on which to thrive.

Southern City traveled to Durham recently to catch up with Gergen – who heads a national collaborative called Forward Cities – and hear more of his perspective on how municipal government can stimulate innovation and attract and retain necessary talent.

It was fitting to find him in the Bull City, where he went to college, at Duke University. He joked that more people from his graduating class in the early 1990s moved to Ecuador than stayed in Durham to pursue their futures.

(Gergen, too, spent his early entrepreneurial days in South America, having opened up a bar and coffeehouse in Santiago, Chile.) 

But today he’s thrilled to see what Durham has become – an accessible, well-connected and supported place where the graduating class wants to stay and grow.

"You realize that there are a set of actors and stakeholders that play to be able to foster that, and one of them is government," Gergen said. "Obviously, the charge of government is the well-being of the citizens, but also the economic well-being of the citizen and if you look at economic development, there are a few different levers that we can pull."

Traditional economic development is about recruiting companies, Gergen noted. But he thinks government officials need to recognize an evolved definition that sees local governments, like municipalities, as stakeholders in fostering a healthy "entrepreneurial ecosystem" and creating policies that can responsibly accelerate the emerging entrepreneurial economy.

"One of the things that you can do is … connect your emerging entrepreneurs and problem solvers with the resources and relationships and knowledge and networks they need to be as successful as possible," 

he suggested. "Right? Access to capital, access to mentorship, access to technical assistance. Make the economics work for them. And if you can make the economics work for them, they will stay."

Durham has a reputation for innovation these days, as a hive of business incubators, startup mentors and investors. It’s a place where any baseball knocked out Durham Bulls Athletic Park has a decent chance of hitting someone tied in with the downtown entrepreneurial network.

But smaller towns in North Carolina are nailing the formula, too, Gergen pointed out.

"Wilson is a smaller, more rural community, but they’ve got a few cool assets to it," he said. "One, their downtown is beautiful. They’ve got a lot of these historic, brick buildings that are spectacular assets that are now being developed or redeveloped into these cool lofts and into work spaces, into maker spaces, at a very affordable price."

He also noted Wilson’s Whirligig Park, which features spectacular wind-powered sculptures developed by the late Vollis Simpson, a globally known, North Carolina-based artist who received a tribute in The New York Times upon his death in 2013.

His large whirligigs on display there attract not only tourists (who’ve come from around the world), but provide for an artistic environment that often overlaps with innovative thinking in business.

A third quality to the town came straight from city government – the gigabit of fiber that makes up Greenlight Community Broadband. It’s a city service that got national attention as the state’s first all-fiber optic network.

"And so all of a sudden, you have an opportunity as an emerging entrepreneur or artist to be able to have very inexpensive, very cool housing, with access to walkable office areas next to a cool arts district 45 minutes away from Raleigh, with a high-speed Internet connection," Gergen said. "So I think you’re finding cities like Wilson recognizing the fact that they can play in this economy."

But such communities can’t foot it alone, he said. They have to be part of a broader ecosystem, with well-supported metro hubs that have strong "satellite relationships" with smaller towns around them.

"They’ll thrive if they’re built into a broader, connected ecosystem," Gergen said.

Individual communities will have to determine where they fit, what they want to be a part of and what messages they want to push to higher governments where they might need help. But there exists a list of levers they can pull if they want to drive innovation at home.

Through his work with Forward Cities and the separate but related Forward Impact – the former a two-year problem-solving, collaborative pilot between New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland and Durham; the latter focused on educational opportunities and entrepreneurial environments – Gergen has identified the following five factors that drive innovation in a community:

Build – "How do you build your talent pipeline? How do you home-grow it? How do you recruit it? How do you retain it? So, importantly, the K-12 system and the university and community college system need to be critical aspects of this work. For our economy to thrive going forward, we need to be preparing the next generation of problem solver and innovator and somebody who’s able to have a vision for where a problem needs to be solved and go through a process of successfully executing against that problem within a team-based environment."

Enable – "As this entrepreneurial talent is emerging, we need to create the enabling environments to be able to connect these emerging innovators and problem solvers with the resources and relationships they need to be successful. So it’s how do we create the spaces, the networks, the access to sets of relationships that will help them be able to advance their career, provide access to capital, access to the broader business community – to essentially create this enabling layer, so that as they’re emerging and they’re trying to think about where they’re going to go next, that they have this supportive environment there to be able to help them along." 

Measure – "It’s related to data and making sure we’re actively measuring the economic and community impact that this entrepreneurial economy is having on our local communities. We have a dearth of data about that right now. We don’t often know how many new businesses are getting started, how many employees that they’re bringing on, how much capital that they’re attracting, how much revenue that they’re providing into the community…. So we need to be able to correlate, in a very clear way, a set of investments that go into the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the kind of economic and community impact it’s having…. When you have good data, you can make good decisions about how to invest resources to be able to have greater impact, and we don’t do a good enough job with that yet."

Advocate – "Goes back to our conversation … about the role of policymakers and elected public leaders, to recognize the fact that there is a role for local economic development and state economic development policy to be able to foster these entrepreneurial ecosystems. There’s a terrific tool called Citie.org that was developed by Deloitte and Catapult (Future Cities) and Nesta, which basically allows municipal policymakers in cities to be able to audit their innovation resources and assets and see how well they’re doing against those assets and where there are gaps. So it’s something I recommend policy leaders take a look at…. Are cities doing the best job that they possibly can to help foster this local innovation ecosystem?"

Share – "This is a narrative, right? So you want to ultimately be able to start to tell the story of how these cities are coming back, or are new hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship…. When you’re able to establish a very attractive narrative, then you’re able to start to create a flywheel effect. Because if the narrative is good, and people get excited about what is going on in this particular community, it’s going to attract more talent. More talent will attract more capital. More capital will make it a more robust system. More policies will be aligned with that. There will be better data to be able to prove it…. So often, though, these stories are not being told…. Problems scream while solutions whisper. And so we’ve got to do a better job amplifying these solutions, amplifying the cool things that are happening in these communities."

More information about Gergen and his work with cities and entrepreneurs is available at forwardcities.org and forwardimpact.info.