Innovation Clues from Cleveland

Cleveland is unique in its approach to broadband, its emphasis on entrepreneurial innovation and its focus on the region rather than on the city, the state or the nation, writes Jerry Mechling.
August 1, 2007
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Coming originally from Ohio, I'm familiar with the Cleveland jokes. The Cuyahoga River catching fire from steel-mill pollution. The "full Cleveland" sartorial style (a 1970s leisure suit -- often powder blue -- with white patent leather belt and shoes). The haughty industrial high-flyer of the early 1900s that plummeted as industrial jobs left post-World War II and poverty grew.

It's a city that many think is clueless.

Today, however, if you're interested in a key problem facing 21st century governments, you should think again. Cleveland is part of something rather different. And it could be big.

So, what's that problem?

Step back a bit. From a broad perspective, the biggest problem in government today is arguably our difficulty in keeping up as the pace of innovation continues to dramatically increase.

From time immemorial, good performance -- in government and elsewhere -- has come from two activities: (a) control -- doing well what we've already learned -- and (b) innovation -- learning new things.

What's different over the past century (keeping a broad perspective here) is a huge jump in the importance of innovation. Science has taken off. Knowledge has taken off. The applications of science and knowledge have taken off. Productivity has taken off (especially with World War II and the jumps that started again in the 1990s).

But these changes have been much less dramatic for governments. Governments, fundamentally, have been built like luxury cars, "for comfort, not speed." They are large. They offer essential services, so can't afford mistakes. They care a lot about fairness. They do things in a fishbowl.

All this makes experimentation and innovation -- and productivity improvement -- very difficult. Governments have a hard time putting money aside for future possibilities when voting constituents want service now. Governments have a hard time absorbing the three experiments that may not pan out before the fourth try that makes it all worthwhile.

So how can we help governments survive the now-incessant demands for innovation? And what are the clues from Cleveland, of all places?

The essence is found in what Cleveland is doing with broadband infrastructure for innovation on a regional basis. Cleveland is unique in its approach to broadband, its emphasis on entrepreneurial innovation and its focus on the region rather than on the city, the state or the nation.

1. Broadband infrastructure. The OneCleveland effort, now called OneCommunity ( proceeds from the observation that broadband is essential for 21st century social, economic and political interactions and life. Cleveland seeks ultra broadband -- carrying gigabits rather than megabits of on-demand video and audio, to tap far more powerfully into emotions and interactivity than the slower speeds adequate for text alone. Anyone teaching in high school or college can tell you how important video and audio have become. There's no going back.

In pursuing broadband, the OneCommunity people -- beginning especially with Lev Gonick of Case Western Reserve University and former Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell -- have worked to counter the erosion in U.S. broadband that has plunged us from first in the world to our recent ranking of 20th. They have assembled local governments and nonprofits to own the infrastructure. They have not turned the job over to traditional cable and telecommunications firms.

2. For innovation. The mantra for OneCommunity is "Connecting. Enabling. Transforming." While "connecting" is obvious for broadband infrastructure, it's the "enabling" and "transforming" that are worthy of wider attention. What OneCommunity is doing is using broadband to attract and engage entrepreneurial people and projects.

This is clearly not an effort by the Cleveland government to go it alone. Instead, it's an effort to mobilize corporate and nonprofit institutions that are comfortable and competent with innovation. The OneCommunity story is very much about corporations such as Cisco, IBM and Intel, and especially about community-based nonprofits such as Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Municipal School District, the Cuyahoga County Public Library System, the local public broadcasting system and the Cleveland Foundation, among others.

And while entrepreneurial energy is absolutely essential, OneCommunity also recognizes that private institutions can't go it alone. In a world where innovation and knowledge can be both captured within and then disseminated via software, corporations and nonprofits need test markets for early experiments and opportunities to grow to scale. They also need to be seen as inclusive and legitimate in their role as agents of controversial change.

In the OneCommunity approach, corporations and nonprofits are turned to for their entrepreneurial interests and skills (social venture capital), while the public sector provides legitimacy and opportunities for scale that can otherwise be hard for the privates to find. OneCommunity shows how a more innovations-oriented future may take shape.

3. On a regional basis. Another "Cleveland clue" is the focus on the region. Cleveland could not create broadband-enabled innovation on its own. It tried but could not get much help from the state capitol in Columbus. It tried but could not get much help from national policy in Washington, D.C. The reality for Cleveland and all northeast Ohio is that jobs are increasingly mobile while people and the regional workforce are remarkably stable. Despite the fact that roughly 20% of Americans move every five years, nearly half live within 30 miles of where they were born. The regional economy is the essential unit of community and change.

Looking to the future, Cleveland provides clues but not final answers. While broadband use is expanding in the region, with numerous innovative applications in education, government, arts and culture, and health care, there is considerable backpressure from telecom interests (as is happening across the country against municipal wireless initiatives). The proof of concept for OneCommunity will not merely be the early blossoms, but the long-term fruit.

Still, it's hard to develop good answers without addressing good questions. "How can we get broadband infrastructure for innovations on a regional basis?" is a good question.

For help with your own answers, look at Cleveland. (And for more on this story, see a Harvard Web-based case at: