I get asked all the time, What is the single thing we could do to move Maine toward an Innovation Economy? In some ways, this is a great question because it is thought provoking, and forces you to think about how to prioritize actions.
However, it’s also a dangerous question because it implies that there is a silver bullet for our economy, and there is not. Any economy is actually a system, with many pieces that move independently and together, and pushing on just one lever may or may not make the entire system move in the desired direction.
It seems to me that there are many elements in the system that need to be considered. There’s education – what are young people being taught and what are they learning? Are they seeing the opportunity to be creative and innovative? Can they envision working for themselves?
What about training? Are adults already in the workforce, or those that desire to work, getting the training they need to be productive, innovative, contributing members of the economy and the society?
What about idea creation? Are we supporting research and development, either at universities or other laboratories? What about inside companies?
Once there is innovation and entrepreneurship, are we supporting it? Is capital available for all the different stages of commercialization? Is there content, coaching and community for entrepreneurs and business owners?
But picking anyone of these as the most important leaves out the influences of the others on the whole. And so, the answer I always give when pushed to name a single thing is Leadership. We need leadership, whether political or civic, that helps us pull all these elements together in the right direction. Leadership can shape the vision of who we want to be and where we want to go. Leadership can help solve problems, and find common solutions, and common language.
Many folks say that elections don’t matter, that it doesn’t matter who is Governor or Senator or Mayor. But it does matter, because without leadership that understands the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship, we will only be able to push one or two levers, not embrace the entire system.
However, this isn’t the same thing as expecting the leader to have all the answers. In fact, really great leaders listen to the folks around them, and engage their diversity and knowledge to collectively come up with great ideas. Sometimes, this is a messy process; sometimes, when there is a system in place, it can be very elegant. So, in addition to seeing the economy as a system, we must also be sure that we have the trust, diversity and willingness to fail that are the essential elements of an innovation system, an innovation culture.