Saturday, 30 July 2011

Networking, innovation and why we all need to get out a bit more often

I attended the Knowledge Economy Summit last week at my alma mater the University of Leicester. Holding the event was pledge number 85 in the new City Mayor's 100 days programme.

Attended by a mixture of academics and businesspeople, the principle aim of the meeting was to discuss how the relationship between the two could be enhanced so that Leicester can develop a real innovation culture in the same way that it has in the creative and cultural arena.

It was a constructive and friendly event but what was apparent from this is just how fragmented the connections between various organisations, sectors and individuals are. Yesterday's event is not the first time I have witnessed this. I recall the early days of the City Centre Management Board where it transpired that some of the different retail traders groups barely new each other - not a great place to start for promoting the city's retail offering. I've also seen it with the heritage bodies who, for a long time had very little communication despite overwhelming overlaps in their aims.

I don't see this as necessarily a bad reflection on Leicester people, I have no reason to believe they are inherently more parochial or tribal than anywhere else. However, I do think that a variety of factors including political leadership problems, old boy networks, recent immigration, high turnover of residents have probably all played their part in keeping people in little pockets rather than working together.

What I have seen is when people do get together and the ice breaks then the results can be striking. The successes of city centre management are a case in point as are the increasing collaboration of the heritage groups to put heritage and history firmly back on the agenda.

The diversity of people in Leicester can stop being just a 'raw material' and instead be a major asset if people are willing to cross boundaries and trust each other. The more networking and mixing opportunities such as last week's event the better. As I said in the meeting, it's important to remember that the 'soft' networking is just as important as specific goal-orientated meetings between say academics and businesses. All of the major cultural and industrial movements from the Renaissance to Silicon Valley happened when large groups of people from different disciplines got the opportunity to mingle.

Here are some off-the-cuff ideas for kick-starting an innovation culture in Leicester:-
  • Take the "build networks not destinations" mantra and apply it to the innovative people in the city. If we build the network we will also become the destination. (hat tip also to Dr Alan Cann of University of Leicester)
  • Hold, encourage or promote regular events which include 'soft networking' like Cafe Scientifique, Creative Coffee Club or Skeptics in the Pub and don't try to take over what existing groups already do well.
  • Host lectures and seminars by world class speakers from innovative businesses, organisations and universities a bit like Amplified Leicester or TED (could we tempt TED into running a conference in Leicester?).
  • Create a newspaper, newsletter, blog or blogroll of innovative projects, products and research happening in Leicester a bit like Leicester Shire Promotions' Big It Up campaign or even my little city PR project Leicester On The Map.
  • Celebrate successful Leicester innovators and encourage them to stay and invest in the city.
  • Get participants used to sharing ideas rather than hoarding them, unnecessary non-disclosure agreements and patents can stifle innovation.
  • Discourage non-competition clauses in employment contracts as per Californian law
  • If money is to be spent on new buildings and facilties, build networking, collaboration and serendipitous encounters into the fabric of the building (compare New Walk Centre with LCB Depot!).
  • Create open LinkedIn, Facebook or Google groups for people interested in promoting innovation to keep the conversation and connections going after face-to-face meetings.
  • Smash the separation between science and arts - have scientists and technology people in the LCB Depot and artists in the forthcoming Leicester Innovation Centre (and stop calling areas names like 'Science Park' or 'Cultural Quarter'). Scientists and artists are both creative and innovative - think like Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Get help from outside. Bring in people who have personal experience of places that have succeeded and remember that sometimes 'stakeholders' can be handbrakes.
  • Read this book: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steve Johnson which stresses how innovation comes when people interact in 'coral reef' communities rather than from the genius of solitary individuals.
Leicester is a bit like a party with bunch of really interesting and different people who don't yet know each other very well. Whether this is a crying shame or a wonderful opportunity for innovation depends on whether your glass is half full or half empty!