The Entrepreneurial City

All hail the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the risk takers and the opportunity makers.

Many people think of the typical innovator is a young, male, silicon valley based coder who is part of a rapidly growing commercial company. Elon Musk and Steve Jobs are two archetypes that occupy the popular imagination of what an innovator is. However whilst they are both remarkable people who have achieved a great deal, putting them on a pedestal to represent what innovation is, is highly misleading.

Tesla and Apple’s success is built directly and indirectly on major public sector investment in technology and innovation. Both companies received significant investment directly, and have used and integrated technology that has emerged from the likes of DARPA and other publicly funded research laboratories.

In fact governments are often the real investors, risk-takers and innovators as described by Mariana Mazzucato in her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State and in this TED talk below, where she challenges the entrenched myth that the state should simply get out of the way.

The obsession with the likes of Musk and Jobs betrays the fact that innovation is a trait of groups not of individuals. Innovation is a byproduct of diverse places, networks and organisations that have figured out how to collaborate so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The most innovative and entrepreneurial places and organisations almost always combine complex combinations of public and private sector collaboration. And yet governments have one of the lowest trust ratings of any institution and so civil servants who work within their labyrinthine institutions are frequently made to feel like second class citizens.

Having worked for both large and small public and private sector organisations, I have seen first hand than none were inherently more or less innovative as a result of their size or their public or private sector status. Rather the differentiator in my experience has always been about the quality of the people and their ability to experiment. I have worked with large private sector organisations that are so crippled by internal politics and process that they become completely dysfunctional. Conversely whilst at Nesta, a smaller public sector organisation (at the time – it’s since become a charity), I was fortunate to be hired along with a lot of other smart people and set high exceptions whilst being given a broad remit to experiment with open innovation which was highly creative and entrepreneurial and formed the foundations for what we now do at 100%Open.

Since the book that inspired this post was written, our national governments have become ever more wrapped up in knots with trade wars looming and geopolitical manoeuvrings such as Brexit slowing down their ability to innovate. So more than anywhere else, cities now seem to be the movers and shakers of all things entrepreneurial. If you are creative and ambitious, the first port of call is traditionally a global city where you have a melting pot of people and of ideas, and perhaps to join a start up or to work for the city.

Real innovation comes from the collision of public and private, left and right, creative and technical, bottom up and top down and from everywhere else in-between. Human scale cities like Pittsburgh and Berlin are increasingly leading the way when it comes to innovation through a combination of public and private sector collaboration. So perhaps it’s time that cities, and the public servants who work with and for them, should be celebrated as the real entrepreneurs instead.

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