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Developing an Inclusive, Technology-Based Innovation Ecosystem

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Costas Spirou
April 25, 2022

Managing the innovation process successfully is complicated. The focus of this commentary is on the approaches nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, government agencies and other organizations can employ to develop an inclusive innovation ecosystem to improve their communities’ well-being. Specifically, it is argued that the “catalyst,” a representative coalition of collaborators, may prove to be the most significant entity in this process due to its coordinating role, fundraising capacity and results-driven orientation.  

During the last two decades we have seen the rise of innovation districts in Boston, Sacramento, Philadelphia and Seattle. Tech Square in Atlanta also is an example of a district that has evolved into a hub of corporate innovation centers. Among them, Southern Company (Energy Innovation Center) emphasizes energy production, delivery and use; Home Depot (The Innovation Center) identifies ways to integrate technologies like 3D printing, VR/AR and wearable devices; and Delta Airlines (The Hangar) pursues using drones, voice assistants and mobile gate interface to improve customer service and on-time travel.

However, one significant concern of advancing innovation within this context is that its concentration on problem solving and profit-making leaves behind large portions of the population, mostly the economically disadvantaged and underrepresented minorities in both urban and rural areas. Inclusive innovation is a way to strategically expand and reframe current practices. It encourages a fundamentally different approach by providing residents with access to opportunities at the grassroots level. Social responsibility, coupled with market oriented activities, emphasize regional competitiveness capable of generating prosperity.

Stages of Inclusive Innovation

Inclusive innovation can be advanced locally or regionally through three developmental stages. The first aims to form a strong foundation by introducing maker spaces, student competitions, curriculum integration and engaging with community members and business entities. The second stage focuses on building capacity through internal and external pursuits. Asset mapping, a needs assessment of the community environment, co-working facilities, local partnerships, technical assistance and mentoring services, as well as support for start-ups, accelerators and incubators, are also a part of this stage.

Finally, in order for these projects to reach the greatest level of maturity, enabling growth to a third, robust state is essential. Potential strategies in this category include continued involvement of the local or state government, expanding partnerships with businesses and corporations, university participation in commercializing knowledge by integrating the work of institutes and centers and enlisting foundations. Additionally, ongoing community engagement and considering the contributions that real estate and amenities can make have the capacity to make a significant impact.

The Model of Inclusive Innovation

Any model must recognize the multifaceted nature of these initiatives and would be applicable, regardless of size, scope and mission. To be successful, five key actors are essential: government, business, education, community and a catalyst.

The most common approaches to stimulating innovation typically entail direct alliances between the government and business. This interplay often results in criticism because extensive public incentives may not produce the purported outcomes. Adding educational institutions to the mix can bring balance to those interactions.

However, to develop an inclusive environment one must go beyond this three-way format to include two additional entities: community organizations and a catalyst. Community participation encourages the identification of existing assets, as well as relevant needs. It also allows for local perspectives, placing the importance of grassroots engagement front and center. The purpose of the catalyst is to facilitate resources that support and fuel this orientation, thus maximizing success. An example of this type of engagement is Georgia’s Partnership for Inclusive Innovation ((pin)).

The Role of the Catalyst

As a private-public partnership, (pin) works closely with the local chambers of commerce and other area groups (businesses, community associations, educational institutions and government offices) to establish a statewide network. The goal is to organize a technology and innovation ecosystem by coordinating resources and identifying highly impactful initiatives. It is expected that this homegrown, inclusive effort will create viable results to engage and impact all community members. As a prerequisite to innovation, (pin) recognizes the importance of encouraging creativity.

Since its recent formation, (pin) supports project planning across nine development regions that are formed around three main categories. These include, Innovate for All which scales opportunities by furthering existing programs, services and technologies; Smart Community Corps, which engages students from colleges and universities to support current activities; and Georgia Smart Community Challenge, which provides research assistance to activities focusing on a smart future.

The catalyst is a unique and significant component within the model. It could include a team of government, business and educational leaders who are outcome oriented, as well as individuals who are willing to fundraise, pursue grants and distribute resources strategically and effectively. Because of its ability to focus, the catalyst can maximize efficiency.

Launching an Inclusive Innovation Structure

Given the critical importance of the catalyst, it is essential to reflect on its establishment. Any of the actors in the model (government, business, education or community representatives) can propose its formation. The catalyst can be a nonprofit entity, preferably the result of a private-public parternship. Leadership and a visionary outlook is necessary, as well as a deep commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.

(pin) is a statewide initiative, but similar structures can be formed at the municipal or regional level. A collaborative perspective that recognizes the contributions of multiple actors and the unique position of the catalyst is crucial. At the same time, putting in place procedures to ensure that accountability and mission-driven decisions are grounded in transparency and democratic principles is paramount.

Encouraging technology transfer, embarking on mission oriented projects and establishing support systems, networks and partnerships can lead to creating ecosystems that incubate and accelerate science, technology and entrepreneurial activity. For inclusive innovation to be successful it must be focused locally with a grassroots orientation, integrate multiple and different stakeholders and always aim for equitable and sustainable growth.

Author: Costas Spirou is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Georgia College & State University. Most recently, he is the author of Anchoring Innovation Districts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021).

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