Building a Culture of Innovation: Report from the Field

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After two days with 150 artists, land developers, business and government executives, architects, and players in public and private global ventures designed to change the face, lifestyle, and economy of urban places, I was exhausted by the openness, creativity and, most of all, the pragmatic willingness to take action that I was hearing about. The Global Forum on the Culture of Innovation, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Urban Land Institute, transformed a ballroom in San Diego into a nexus of ideas, exchange, and, of course, thoughtful networking. I was delighted to be invited and came with no preconceptions, and that was probably the best way to prepare.

I met wonderful people who had not just come up with great ideas, but moved across the political, economic, and societal landscape to make them real. Much of the learning was counter-intuitive, challenging common ideas about how things happen. For example, Fred Dust, partner at Ideo, noted that many of the best ideas are not planned, but emerge from opportunity seasoned by intuition. He cited the High Line park in New York, now one of the most visited and most valued places in the city, and how its popularity emerged from people just having fun being there. There was no single architect or plan for it as it began.

Much of the exchange focused not on generating great ideas, but how you develop a critical mass of people working across boundaries to get things done and a culture of creativity in work and government. We were challenged from the start: Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh, said bluntly that collaboration was the opposite of getting things done. He found it amazing that politicians worked so hard to get power and then gave it away to groups deliberately rather than listening and using power to make things work. He mentioned that, in San Diego, they had a referendum about a new baseball stadium and people voted for it and it still hasn’t been done, whereas in Pittsburgh, they voted one down and he went ahead and built a coalition to get it done anyway and it is now open. He talked about leadership as being ahead of people rather than behind them. So, from the beginning, the dialectic was set about taking action and allowing things to happen.

Figuring out the public will is a tricky art, not a science. It was pointed out that if you poll people about what music they listen to when they are alone, they always answer “classical music.” However, when people are observed, we find that they are quite bluntly lying. And, of course, how can we poll people about whether they want something that they have no idea is possible or how it will work and affect them? The spirit of Apple was in the room as people pointed out that nobody was looking for an iPod, iPhone, or iPad, but they could not wait to get them when they were out. It was also pointed out that Apple stores are one of the most innovative, new public spaces, and it was in fact a private entity. The boundary between public and private is increasingly hard to define.

There was much talk about leadership creating possibility and engagement, and working across boundaries not only within organizations but outside them. Several urban areas were cited as emerging models of new urban dynamic communities, including Barcelona, a wonderful growing space, and the San Francisco Bay area, contrasted with the La Jolla mesa in San Diego, where buildings were separated and public space was at a minimum. Several artists showed how they were able to develop space to make it inviting and creative.

Wonderful stories were shared in pictures about the nature of innovation centered urban spaces. The designer of the new headquarters for Pixar talked about designing the entry to the space not as a fortress with guards and one door, but as a sort of urban mall, opening in a natural light atrium into a space that led everywhere in the building. He talked about placing the bathrooms at the four corners of the entry, so that people had to move and exchange many times a day. Converting a cafeteria to a public space by making it a café as a way to encourage cross-group relationships.

Greg Brandeau, who heads technology at Pixar and wrote a new book called Collective Genius, compared their space at Pixar with the space of their now-parent company The Walt Disney Company, where people worked in spaces where they rarely saw other people. Creativity is limited by the places people work in, Brandeau noted. He talked about the increasing difficulty in keeping ideas secret and how the culture of innovation at Pixar was one of having new ideas faster than others can steal them.

As we ended, I was overwhelmed by possibility and I wanted to slightly censor the voice in me that made me doubt and not move toward thinking about what was possible. Yes, we live in a time of austerity and unwillingness to collaborate, but there are also many smaller places where people are reaching across boundaries, working together and making things happen.

Read other posts by Dennis Jaffe

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