Friday, September 20, 2013

Innovation Culture, and what in the hell is a Chief Innovation Officer

Innovation, currently the 'buzziest' of buzz words has come to San Leandro, and it leaves a lot of people wondering what is this all about. Innovation has managed to even become main stream, with the word bandied about on national news shows and gaining momentum as a catchy phrase in government. But, what is innovation, not the dictionary word, but, what does it mean when people speak of 'innovation ecosystems' or 'innovation lifestyle'. For a city like San Leandro, that has not been a leader in the recent trends of technology or lifestyle, how does a focus on innovation manifest itself in our community. And just what is a Chief Innovation Officer, and why would we need, or even want one.

Some of this comes down to changes in the technology of our lives, the ability to communicate seamlessly and instantly, to institute broad efforts across vast spaces and to compress time in that manner. In terms of it's effect on culture, it has modified how we, as individuals and as groups are empowered, a single person can engage multiple entities, throughout the day, and as long as the technology holds up, that communication can occur over vast distances. People are more mobile than ever before, often working miles from the rest of their team, in some cases, with the team spread across continents. In my field, this manifested itself in the fact that some architects have an effective 24 hours office cycle, passing the same project across the globe, with fresh eyes picking up the work every few hours. Design and engineering seamlessly changing every minute of the day, what once took months was reduced to weeks.

The other thing that drives innovation is people, and what their expectations are from the life they live. I am one of the last of the Baby Boomers, the people who came of age in the late 1960's and early 1970's, who would change the social fabric by which society lived. Our parents believed in working hard, staying in place and building a future, many of my generation believed in a much more mobile society, more free in how their lives would be lead. This generation would ultimately become the generation that would recreate the 80 hour work week and spawn a technological revolution. Into this, walked the Gen-X and Millenials, the children of the technology revolution, and with them came a second cultural revolution, not social in it's inception, but, technological, in that they are far more connected, but, far more instant in how they view life. The old rules do not work with their new reality. And thus change.

And this is where innovation lifestyle comes to the fore, people with new definitions of family, work and experience. Who are seeking to leverage technology that was barely imagined in the time of their parents. Their ideals of what life is, or what work is, shaped by technology that has changed every aspect of our lives. And they are finding that the codes, and laws and traditional ways of governance are in the way. Cities are finding that to engage these new workforce ideals, they must become more agile, more open, or they will fall behind. Our cities are, by nature, cumbersome beasts, fed by caution and burdened by bureaucracy. Uniquely unsuited to thrive in a fast moving cultural change. And so, the Chief Innovation Officer.

San Francisco has one, San Leandro too, and many other cities are moving in this direction. A person, or small group, the special forces of the city government. A great CIO has a grasp of all of the equation, an understanding that the entire City must respond, at many levels, to the change that is occurring in the work force. A city such as San Leandro, where I live, has many disparate parts, and a lot of pluses, but, until recently, no clear path to using all of those pieces in a unified game plan to create opportunity and to understand what the City can and should become. In the case of San Leandro, a city that has neglected or mismanaged much of it's assets, this comes in the form of understanding that the change must be broad, across many parts of the cities culture. The work places, the social living places and the commercial spaces must all change, to keep the City vital.

If the City of San Leandro is to attract the businesses that will lead the next economy, then there must be places where the types of people who are going to create that economy can find food, housing, recreation, social interaction and safety, and that will be driven by the ability to focus on making innovating San Leandro and how it both is seen, and how it sees itself. Recent visits, triggered by our CIO, Deborah Acosta, has brought some of the leaders of the new guard into the City and to a person, these people have noted that San Leandro has 'the great bones' to be a center of growth. We can be the place that the next great business ideas incubate and grow organically. This is what innovation culture will ultimately be about, growing our own economy, not trying to attach our City's fate to some other economic engine.

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