Finding Innovation – four steps and a stumble

Local governments, corporates and SMEs can embrace and enable innovation for transformational benefits. And, venturing into the world of startups, unicorns, incubators and angels can be risky and expensive. There is an abundance of information and people about the technologies and trends with implications for industries and organisations, but little about how to effectively relate to it. 

Here, four steps and a stumble are recommended for successful navigation and finding of innovation: centre, scope, orient, walk and …. then get lost (inevitably, deliberately). But it doesn’t end badly, it goes on beautifully.

Read on to begin your innovation journey.

This blog is based on a presentation for the Western Australian Local Government Professionals conference and related publications. It is focused on encouraging them to effectively engaging with innovators, startups and technologies relevant to achieving their economic, social and environmental outcomes. It may well be relevant for professionals in other contexts, such as corporates, state government and SMEs.

Before we begin

Innovation is actually a very specific and niche area. While innovations will transform whole organisations, industries and societies, being a good professional probably means spending between 80 and 99% of time, energy and resources on core business and ruthlessly executing using known methods to pursue defined objectives. And, devote at least 1% for innovation. If you only have 1% you’d want to be effective with it and so hence this guide to help you.

Whether something is an innovation in a local government context can be assessed using three criteria as suggested in the Mid West Innovation Agenda:

  • development or introduction of something new or improved,
  • that creates new additional value, and 
  • contributes to your communities aspirations.

The last point is a specific addition for any organisation whose primary intention is to be of benefit to their community, whether defined geographically of otherwise.

Examples of innovations relevant to Western Australian local governments are referred to in the slideshow and can also be found in:

Here though, rather than “WHAT is innovation?”, we’re focused on ‘finding’ it, so “WHERE is innovation” is a better question.

Centre

Innovation is a relative distinction – what I perceive as ‘innovative’ in my work context or location may be already decades old for a coder in San Francisco, or completely irrelevant to a farm worker in Nigeria. Where innovation consistently ‘is’ though for everyone, is on the edges. 

Edges can mean the edge of your perception, edges where different domains of expertise intersect, or ‘leading edge’ of change in a field. Elected politicians and to some degree local governments and professionals in them tend to be in the ‘middle’ by virtue of our popular democratic processes: they must appeal to the majority to be elected and effective. So innovation is unlikely to be where good professionals normally hang out, it will somewhere different, on the edges.

RCT Global founded in Kalgoorlie is cited as an example of this ‘edge’ as it was a company developed around a ‘side effect’ of mining in the 1960s: death and injury of workers. Now, what was on the edge is now in the ‘centre’ of mining industry best practice.

So the recommendation is to ‘Centre’ in your normal location and perception and then move towards the edges to find innovation. Practically, this may mean being clear about your council’s priorities, strategies, capabilities and aspirations, and may literally be the ‘vision’ or purpose for pursuing innovation.

Scope

Finding innovation is not a general or generic activity, it is very specific to your needs and context. Aggregation of FinTech startups tackling global markets is relevant for the City of Sydney competing with London or New York to attract and retain talent, but of little relevance to the City of Albany where leading excellence in biodiversity conservation or nature-based recreation may be a better fit for the benefit of their local community or economic development strategy. 

So I recommend you ‘Scope’ what innovation means for your, whether it’s about industry clusters tackling export markets, local community groups doing better with their limited local resources, or enabling your staff to be more productive and healthier. Practically, this ‘scoping’ may inform the amount and type of resources you devote to innovation, and literally be the ‘scope’ part of an innovation strategy or policy.

Orient

Orient’ is the next recommendation: decide upfront what value you intend for innovation to generate. Value is relative and generally not something created at the end of an innovation process or startup journey by magic, rather it’s the thing that guides navigation continuously. Practically this could mean defining the objectives, goals or outcomes of your engagement with innovation. It’s what you are seeking.

Examples of the different ‘value’ can be seen in the varied missions of startup incubators from around the world in a previous blog post. Governments can also encourage startups for different reasons and so have different strategies for investment: to create jobs, generate export revenue, prepare skilled workers for the future or to change culture and mindsets. Further examples are shown in the slideshow of specific innovations and startups that created value relevant for local governments: remote communities’ health, urban communities planning approvals and regional centres’ creative industries.

Walk

Walk’ is the fourth recommendation with a caveat. By walk, I mean actually do something: test, build, launch, pilot, procure, change…actually do something, dive in, don’t just produce a plan about doing it. Execution is everything in innovation – effective action it’s the only way that additional value can be actually created or communities’ aspirations can actually be realised.

The caveat is that if you are entering a new landscape (e.g. startup ecosystem, or on the edges of your territory where you don’t go normally) a guide is recommended. It’s called an ‘ecosystem’ not a ‘filing system’ because metaphorically it’s characterised by being messy, loosely connected, changing faster than any other sector, and filled with ventures and organisations that are mostly experimental and ephemeral. It’s also called an ecosystem because in the world of startups and innovation there is a great sense of coherence, community, and most people are helpful and friendly, perhaps united by the common humility of continuously failing at doing something different and difficult.

Good guides are employed by various government, for profit and non-profit organisations and are often accompanied by funding. They often also facilitate connections and partnerships with much larger networks and affiliates. As a start, consider contacting people at Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation, StartupWA, Skills of the Modern Age or FarLane who all work with and guide local governments. There are also specific regional innovation programs and organisations such as Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, AgriStart, Meshpoints etc. and more than 70 existing incubators (e.g. spaces, programs or organisations focused on growing startups and innovation) across Western Australia.

Get Lost

Get Lost’ is not really a step or recommendation, rather the most likely thing that will occur in your innovation journey. You see, to do it continuously means visiting the edge regularly and always exploring new territory. Successful innovation will shift into your ‘centre’ and become what you do daily (that 80-99%). So when you’ve completed a project, achieved an outcome, embedded a new technology or grown a new culture, what do next with that 1 – 20% of your time, energy and resources for innovation? Go get lost again!

So the first step is ‘Centre’….freshly, in a new location and walk to the edges until you start feeling lost, then pause and ‘Scope’ the new landscape, ‘Orient’ based on your perception of value, find a guide (they tend to just appear if you ask or look for them) and ‘Walk’….to find innovation.

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