Impact Innovation – Connecting Local Challenges to Global Impacts

Summary: Impact Innovation describes a process that decouples innovation from entrepreneurship and focuses on encouraging the identification of opportunities that come from a divergent exploration of community challenges.  The process of exploration is intended to first expand participant’s understanding of the challenges in order to encourage innovators to find new opportunities that will then stimulate entrepreneurial convergent focus on local solutions to challenges, that may have eventual global new venture potential.  [Update – Please visit this updated post on the topic of Impact Innovation for more information. It will link back to this post. ]

The Alaska OTIS program starting its second year promises to help us explore this model again and expand our understanding of the opportunities to be found in the emerging “blue” or ocean sector of the Alaska economy. But in a cautionary note to those wishing to increase the innovative thinking in our ecosystem and our typical rush to measure a program by the number new startups, the OTIS program should be measured by the breadth of new opportunities, not by new ventures.

Alaska is a place of challenge and opportunity, powered by Alaskan’s pursuit of adventure, a secure life and future legacy. For some the reward of finding a rich pocket of gold deep in a stream bed fuels the passion to continue the search each day, others are working to uncover the riches of a value added economy from our arctic natural resources creating a sustainable economy for rural and urban residents , and more often we are now seeing people aspiring to solve challenges faced by others around the world including going to outer space.  The search for innovations and entrepreneurial success has become a focus of our work to create a vibrant future for Alaska and Alaskans.

However in our rush to quickly solve problems (convergent guy-thinking, trying to fix everything), we can overlook the value in a broader understanding of the challenges and the divergent exploration of the opportunities that come from the challenges.

I’ve been working on the challenge of growing our innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems and concluded that there is a lot of value to decoupling them. In the beginning it was clearer that this decoupling was necessary to avoid the deselection of innovative people to engaging in community startup ecosystem building events.  Frequently the invitation to be an entrepreneur or encouragement to learn how to start a new business resulted in people choosing to not become involved in events since they were either already engaged in their own startup entrepreneurial project or simply employed and not looking for something new, risky or without benefits.

Later the Ocean Technology Innovation Sprint (OTIS)  work and our Global Entrepreneur in Residence, Nigel Sharp‘s early work to increase the diversity of participation in events convinced me of important of looking at innovation and entrepreneurship as complementary but separate processes.  That is, it we should not place the burden of entrepreneurship on the innovator when their time and talent would be best used moving on to the next innovation rather than transitioning in to the work of transforming an idea or concept in to a viable business. And, if you want to increase the number of people working on challenge, we have to entice them with a challenge to solve, not with the goal to create a business.  Yet I want to acknowledge that sometimes, that combined path will make sense for the innovator and when it does, we should be ready to support the innovator who can and wants to become the entrepreneur.  But, I’m getting ahead of the point I want to focus on here, the importance of the innovation and the opportunities we need to find and share.

One of the results of thinking about innovation vs. entrepreneurship was the idea of moving away from talking about “problems” and instead focusing on defining “challenges” and then working on uncovering the “opportunities” from these challenges. I like to think of this as “innovation with an impact”, or “impact innovation”.  This is an approach that seeks to connect community challenges, to opportunities, then to local solutions, and finally in some cases to global ventures. This four step pathway is making sense with the programs we are building in our new blue (ocean) economy.  Its another framing of our “problems” as “challenges” using divergent methods to expand our perspective of the situation; and then view the public and private spending we are going to put in to the problems as the investment in the opportunities that seek to use convergent methods to select and test solutions.

Some examples lately of “problems” that are better seen as “challenges” that we are going to invest in and that can be come a valuable source of opportunities include: climate change, the pink salmon disaster recovery funds, rural fuel use, rural water and wastewater systems, health care… and actually the list can be inclusive of just about every “problem” we face, that can be turned in to challenge and the funding for the “problem” used as investment funding for the challenge to bring clarity to the opportunities and perhaps fund the early local MVP solutions.

A related aspect of this is the basic research that is being funded in Alaska that rather than being seen as unrelated to our applied work and commercialization, can be seen as an investment in learning about new opportunities. Opportunities both from the challenges of conducting the basic research that may uncover the need for new sensors, new data collection systems or new analytical methods; as well as, a list of opportunities that can be harvested from the results of the research finding and conclusions.

So, when we talk about the focus on the “problems” I want to suggest we consider how to we could focus on the “challenges”. I believe we will increase the eventual support for future work and investment to develop opportunities.  I do recognized that there are problems! I believe however that they are a lens in to some, but not all of the challenges, and that challenges are going to get more people on board and engaged.  That is to say, I think problems frame the negative side of the opportunities and that challenges capture both the positive and negative and will be more motivating in the end. Together, what I learned from Nigel and OTIS is that if our community asked for involvement and a participation of entrepreneurs and a startup venture, we will get a good turn out; but, if what we ask for instead, to start with, are people interested in helping solve a challenge, then we get more people from all types of backgrounds, current work and experience.  That is, early involvement seeking entrepreneurs, deselects the people we need most early in solving a challenge. We need these people later, but earlier people who have a job and have no initial interest will help with a problem, who would not help start a new company.  The total community impact is multiplied with this small change in how the situation is framed and the opportunity we create for more diverse people to get involved.

From this came the work I now call “impact innovation” that is, innovation focused on creating  community impact by focus on the community challenges and creating opportunities that fuel innovation to solve those challenges.  From the opportunities will then come innovations that are the starting point of a local solution, and in many cases our local solution may solve the same problem in other parts of the world and can be managed to create a global new venture. If we are going to spend money on the problem of river bank erosion in a rural village, this model suggests taking the same money and investing it first in the challenge of bank stabilization, a global problem in the face of climate change and rising sea levels and frequency of storms, then investing in the local innovative solutions with the intent of creating Alaskan ventures that can deliver the local solution and later expand to global markets.  Currently we simply find a problem and shovel money one time in to some attempt to mitigate the problem with no legacy impact, and I’d suggest frequently a return of the same problem later. (Think rural water and wastewater system installations.)

So, as we start another round of innovation events and another cycle of research  and student projects this fall, its my hope that we refine the idea of supporting the exploration of our challenges and bring visibility to the opportunities so that the innovators and entrepreneurs can then take a hold of those opportunities to build local solutions and new ventures.  The next OTIS program that is just starting will, I hope, bring again a dramatic shift in our understanding of the challenges and opportunities in the blue or ocean economy, and inspire another group of entrepreneurs; but that said, I hope that OTIS and other ideation events do not become focused on business pitches and market valuation of solutions that will focus teams on convergent outcomes vs divergent awareness of new opportunities.