I week ago I was just returning to earth - and returning to Boston - after an exhilarating time in San Jose, CA attending the first ever Global Innovation Summit. I had been privileged not only to attend the event, but to have served behind the scenes on the organizing committee. As a result, I met and brainstormed with some of the world's leading innovators.
The book that served as the focal point of the discussion was penned by Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt, both of T2 Venture Capital in Menlo Park, CA. The book is "The Rainforest - The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley." Victor has written a concise summary of the conference that appears in the current edition of Forbes Magazine.
They convened to do something that had never been attempted before: to reinvent the whole notion of economic growth, by shifting the focus from subsidizing individual projects to growing entire ecosystems of vibrant entrepreneurship and innovation. We call such systems Rainforests. And rather than just talk in the abstract, attendees actually worked on building real Rainforest solutions, in-person and in real-time. We literally watched hundreds of “Rainforest Makers” in action. It was like a Davos for Doers.
The Global Innovation Summit yielded tons of new insights, and it’s impossible to list them all. Here are 10 key lessons on growing innovation for the modern era.
- Business, not charity. To create sustainable economies, Alex Dehgan, the science and technology chief of USAID, recommended to everyone: “Treat the developing world as customers, not poor people.” This is a huge shift from past thinking in economic development, where business was often treated like the enemy, not the cure.
- Capital as pragmatic tool. When talking about the role of social impact capital, Randall Kempner, CEO of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs, stated: “I’m not in it to create a new asset class. I’m committed to create a new middle class in the developing world.” We are moving beyond thinking of capital in simplistic silos. Freely-flowing capital is a pragmatic tool to grow businesses which can give consumers what they need.
- The world wants new solutions. Gerardo Corrachano of the World Bank remarked: “People tell us, we have done everything you’ve told us to do, and we don’t see the results.” The old economic solutions of the past are providing less utility than before. New frameworks and tools are needed.
- We can “design” economic systems. It is possible to apply design thinking to entire economic systems, not just innovative products. At the Summit, we divided attendees into “Houses” (a la Hogwarts). Houses did real work to “design” innovation ecosystems during live, interactive sessions to create useable results.
- People are hungry to pitch in. We asked for volunteers to pitch their ideas for building Rainforests, which we uploaded to YouTube. We were overwhelmed when 57 people posted their video pitches. The top 5 vote-getters were chosen to pitch on-stage with a live feedback panel. The lesson: individuals are fired up and ready to act.
- Be a “psychic welder.” This is the phrase that Nola Masterson, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist, used to describe her method of connecting people together to create value. Innovation ecosystems thrive on human connectivity, not just raw inputs.
- Emotion is the medium. Ade Mabogunje of Stanford’s Institute for Venture Design observed the role of human nature in designing Rainforests: “In design, you have to know what materials you are working with. With human design, the material is emotion.” Systemic economic growth is tied to human emotions and our ability to regulate those emotions. Ecosystems can thrive when people overcome fear and leverage passions.
- Innovators learn by example. Phil Wickham, CEO of the Society of Kauffman Fellows, observed that: “Inspiration is the greatest IP, and that’s what’s lacking in developing regions.” The lack of good role models can be a severe bottleneck on economic growth.
- The human recipe matters. We started with basic raw ingredients—a conference room, 400 human beings, some props, some ideas—and we created our own miniature Rainforest. Over the course of the Summit, even we were blown away by the power of the buzz, the diverse interactions, the collaboration, the spontaneous experimentation happening everywhere. This proves that, with the right recipe, Rainforests can be contagious.
- No longer top versus bottom. Alex Dehgan of USAID said: “This can’t be just top-down, and it can’t be just bottom-up. It’s got to be both.” The interface between bottom-up innovation and top-down policy is both the challenge and the opportunity. The big question: can we bridge that divide to create new solutions to elevate human welfare everywhere?
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Stay tuned for an upcoming Blog review of "The Rainforest."