Why Networks are Crucial to Innovation

The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz says “innovation districts” are the way of the future—places where groups cluster together to share ideas and collaborate. In Pittsburgh, our network of learning innovation uses the same principals.

The geography of innovation is changing. Say goodbye to cubicles and “research parks” with secrets to guard in faraway suburbs, and say hello to city waterfront lofts with shared office space, where startups and businesses of different stripes rub elbows and spark ideas.

“A new complementary urban model is now emerging,” writes the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner, “giving rise to what we and others are calling ‘innovation districts.’”

On the surface, innovation districts aren’t new. Silicon Valley, for one, springs to mind. Although now a sprawling corridor and no longer a fit for Katz’s definition, it started as walkable, wired (human) hub for geeky engineers in 1957.

As Tom Wolfe wrote in “Two Young Men Who Went West,” an essay in the “Hooking Up” collection, Silicon Valley in the 1950s was still a bunch of warehouses among the apricot trees where workers hunched over microscopes cutting little pieces of silicon. But GE and IBM were there, as was the fledgling Hewlett-Packard, and Stanford University was nearby. It was the perfect place for two newcomers from Grinnell, Iowa, to start Fairchild Computers, setting up shop on Charleston Avenue in Mountain View, a stone’s throw from a winner of the Nobel Prize for creating the semiconductor. Freed from the conventions of old-school business and surrounded by people with revolutionary ideas, the team at Fairchild would go on to invent the integrated circuit (and found Intel). The iPhone was a mere 50 years away.

In Katz and Wagner’s rendering, the innovation districts of today have returned to these roots, with a few additions.

“Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine,” they write. Indeed, every shared office space I recently visited in Chicago has an espresso maker front and center.

In Pittsburgh, the innovation district—according to Katz and Wagner—is in the Greater Oakland neighborhood near Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

But what struck me while reading Katz and Wagner’s ideas (first raised in Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s book, “The Metropolitan Revolution”) is just how much the innovation district resembles Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning initiative.

Although Katz and Wagner are talking mostly about innovation as it relates to creating goods and services, I see the learning network in Pittsburgh as a different kind of innovation district. It’s more dispersed physically, but it is still connected in critical ways, embodying a fundamental element in Katz and Wagner’s definition of innovation districts: networks.

[one_third][blockquote]At the heart of an ecosystem for learning is an ability to draw upon the assets of an entire city or community to support students. [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

Recently, Michele Cahill, vice president for national program and program director of urban education at Carnegie Corporation of New York, wrote about the importance of an ecosystem in education, asking: What will take the smart innovations in education to scale?

Her answer: networks.

“I have come to see that an ecosystem for learning is essential. . . . At the heart of an ecosystem for learning is an ability to draw upon the assets of an entire city or community to support students as they grapple with the two primary tasks of adolescence: building competencies and forming their identities,” said Cahill.  [/two_third_last]

That sounds a lot like what the Remake Learning community is doing, along with the Hive Learning Network, in Pittsburgh.

The collaboration between groups, with different and complementary areas of expertise, creates opportunities, Cahill writes, for kids to have:

“relationships with adults and experiences that literally expand the world that is well-known to them through connections with cultural organizations, professional and business settings, science and technical organizations, or community services. Students have opportunities to take on new roles and try out identities that can motivate them and build confidence and effort.”

Katz and Wagner stress the centrality of this kind of ecosystem of networks as well, including them as one of the three features of any innovation district. Networks, they write, “fuel innovation because they strengthen trust and collaboration within and across companies and industry clusters” and “provide information for new discoveries.”

The networks of museums, educators, scientists, and artists that make up the ecosystem in Pittsburgh have always existed, but the Remake Learning initiative has taken them a step further. The Sprout Fund ensures that the individual networks are stitched together in new and specific ways. It also introduces groups that haven’t thought about working together and helps support new relationships while strengthening old ones.

In essence, the Sprout Fund and Remake Learning nurture and develop both the loose and strong ties that every network needs to be healthy.

If you’re looking for a job, you need close friends and associates who can vouch for you, but you also need a wide and diffuse network to hear about a bigger pool of job openings. The same is true for innovation. Too familiar, and the group gets stuck in a rut. Not familiar enough, and it’s hard to get traction for an idea.

In their book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler stress this point:

“Teams made up of individuals who had never before worked together fared poorly, greatly increasing the chance of a flop. These networks were not well connected and contained mostly weak ties. At the other extreme, groups made up of individuals who had all worked together previously also tended to create musicals that were unsuccessful. Because these groups lacked creative input from the outside, they tended to rehash the same ideas that they used the first time they worked together.”

That’s why the Remake Learning network mixes groups that share different cultures and missions and that have seldom, if ever, worked together. It strives for that in-between sweet spot “that combines the diversity of new team members with the stability of previously formed relationships,” as Christakis and Fowler put it.

The Remake Learning ecosystem plays another role for an innovation district. Call it the farm team. The network of museums, science centers, maker spaces, schools, and other like-minded entrepreneurs is creating the future talent that will be renting the shared office space in the innovation districts in years to come.

Published June 30, 2014