by Rob White
As my last regular article for the Vanguard, I wanted to leave you with one important thought – if the Davis community can do any one thing to move towards creation (and growth) of an innovation ecosystem, it should focus on attracting, developing and supporting entrepreneurialism.
This seems like a simple concept, but it is very difficult to get critical mass. A spirit of creativity and innovation has not been something that most people wear as an advertisement, most likely because past industrialization and the evolution of modernity seemed to force our communities into a sense of sameness.
But those attitudes are changing as technology, creativity and communications unshackle our traditional way of invention. We have moved from questioning norms (like government and service delivery) to reforming complete industries.
An easy example is the change in the way people communicate. Literally in the lifetime of our oldest generation, we have moved from written letters, to telegraph and telephone, to cellular communication, to email and texting, to the “holy grail” of instant communication – providing video capture and pictorial representation of our lives.
Never before has the world population been able to realistically capture each important (and sometimes not so important) event in each of our personal and collective lives, cataloguing and instantly sharing photographic evidence of our humanness. In my mind, it’s the modern version of cave painting, which allows us to tell our story and depict our personal view of the world for public consumption.
I am sure you can think of other significant changes over the last 150 years in how we see and experience the world – trains to mass transit, wagons to cars and typewriters to computers.
Not all of our inventiveness has resulted in positive outcomes. The realization that crude oil could be extracted, refined and used as a cheap source of energy has led to some negative outcomes for our world. From vast oil fields that are contaminated with brines, rain forest and habitat destruction, leaks and spills in our oceans and waterways, the generation of greenhouse gases that have created cities filled with smog and destruction of our ozone – these are some negative aspects of our technological growth.
Interestingly, these same issues will (and are) being solved by new technological advances. Like renewable energy, electric vehicles, and a trend towards more mass transit. And as we develop the tools to ever more rapidly understand science and the application of research, we will find more and better ways to achieve the same outcomes that previously led to less than desirable results.
A great example is the growing industry of biologics, of which a significant amount of research and development is happening here in the Davis area. We know that chemically derived pesticides create less than desirable issues – like toxic residues and increasing pest resistance – for our agricultural production. But companies founded in Davis like Marrone Bio Innovations, Bayer Crop Science and BioConsortia are researching and developing new ways to fight pests and nuisance by using organic, naturally occurring substances and microbes.
So for Davis, our world class research university (which is gaining in global prominence) is a primary driver for our culture of innovation. The new ideas from faculty, researchers and students are a crucible for opportunity. Opportunities to feed the world, save the planet and even grow our local economy.
And that is why I posit that it starts in our core. It’s the core of UC Davis’ research, the core of our city (downtown) and the core of our drive to move towards sustainability.
To help frame this point, a recent article posted on the CitiesSpeak website (from the National League of Cities) discussed how cities are the leaders for creativity and economic prosperity. The article was written by Brooks Rainwater and titled “Cities Lead on Entrepreneurialism and Economic Opportunity.”
Rainwater leads off with “America is a country of entrepreneurs, inventors, and idea creators. From this nation’s founding, new ideas have driven our grand democratic experiment with commerce providing the underpinning for a strong and growing body politic. The city has been the unit of government most conducive to experimentation and commercial growth precipitated by those that take risks to form new businesses, grow those businesses, and help whole communities thrive.”
He goes on to state “entrepreneurs create jobs, grow the economy, and enhance the well-being of our communities. With twenty-three million small businesses in the U.S. generating 54% of all sales, it is imperative to create an environment that encourages this growth. Additionally, sales tax revenue from small businesses expands local governments’ capacity to provide high-quality city services to all residents. This is what city leaders are doing by working collaboratively with business owners to create the space for small business to prosper.”
The author then makes an interesting observation about how innovation ecosystems are being created in other cities across the US. He opines that “any discussion on how cities connect their residents to economic opportunity must include the role that small businesses play in incubating innovation and helping communities succeed. One of the most successful ways to connect people to economic opportunity is by increasing economic growth. Two specific ways that cities are working to connect residents to opportunities are by creating incubator spaces and supporting microlending.”
What’s telling about this comment is that Davis’ local, small business community has started those activities. Exemplars include the opening of Davis Roots a few years ago, the newly created JumpStart Davis Meetup for young entrepreneurs, the soon to be opened Downtown Co-Working Space, the work by the JumpStart leaders to create a local angel investment fund, the a attraction to Davis of other angel investors and the locating of several small (and growing) startups in the downtown.
These activities seem to support Rainwater’s contention that “Small business thrives in a supportive ecosystem. Cities are uniquely able to connect entrepreneurs to mentorship, streamlined regulations, skills training, and funding.”
And the Davis community benefits from the success of these efforts. Rainwater points out that “city leaders want to celebrate the success of small businesses in their cities and the foundations they build for a resilient local economy by providing jobs to residents, contributing to sales tax revenues, and attracting visitors. By doing this, small businesses directly contribute to the tax base and employ community residents from all walks of life, while serving as central economic and social drivers in communities nationwide.”
So, I would encourage you to not sit on the sidelines, nor just applaud the work of others. It is time to take the creative spirit that embodies so much of Davis’ past and present and make it doubly true for the future. Our individual efforts harnessed collaboratively are the mechanisms by which successful communities take their own prosperity into their collective hands and manufacture success.
It is not an easy process, but it is one that is deserving of our time and attention. And who knows what will come out of this new rush to entrepreneurialism and innovation – cures for disease, new mechanisms for sustainability or even new forms of social policy? It is exciting to see what can happen when a community focuses on success, instead of debating what failure looks like.
Thanks for letting me have a little of your time each week over the last 18 months. As the opportunity arises, I will try to float an article or two into the Vanguard on an occasional basis. But I will most certainly be reading, using your ideas and input to help me better understand the community of Davis.
I encourage you to also consider writing your own article for the Vanguard. This helps build civic interactions and provides multiple views on the topics that will most certainly shape our future.
Thanks again! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org if you choose to email me directly or you can follow me on Twitter @mrobertwhite.
Author’s Note: Due to shifting needs and workload at City Hall, I will not be able to continue to contribute regular weekly articles to the Davis Vanguard after the holidays. I will be spending much of my foreseeable writing time working with the City Manager and staff on a strategy for the Council’s Goals and Objectives for 2014-2016. Though I have enjoyed engaging this online community, there are limited staff resources and my priorities right now must shift. As my last regular article, I am hoping to inspire collaboration, building of community and innovation. Thank you for your support in my writing over the last 18 months and I hope to still occasionally provide articles as time allows. Please feel free to contact me now or in the future to share your thoughts or ideas.