How to Harvest Good Ideas

Just as seeds need fertilizer to grow well, innovation requires nurturing too.
March 2014
By Aaron M. Renn  |  Columnist
An urban analyst, consultant and writer

In an era of creativity we have come to fetishize the idea. That’s why every innovation competition is about coming up with the best new ideas. It’s as though the idea itself has the power to generate transformation. Yet, if it’s never implemented, even the best idea is of no value.

This has been clearly shown in Rhode Island, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America. The state has been in economic decline far longer than the Midwest’s Rust Belt, prompting many a search for a solution. As one local TV reporter noted, proposals have been piling up since the Eisenhower administration, with none of them ever really implemented.

One such plan that still looms large in civic consciousness was the 1983 Greenhouse Compact. Spearheaded by Ira Magaziner (who would later go on to be the architect of Hillarycare), the Greenhouse Compact was a remarkably thorough and prescient 1,000-page analysis of Rhode Island’s economy with a set of comprehensive solutions proposed to address them. Still, the public overwhelmingly voted it down in 1984.

With no serious turnaround plan ever implemented, the civic trajectory has, unsurprisingly, continued downward; Rhode Island today is among the worst economic performers in the country. Five years after the Great Recession ended, the state still has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates at 9.1 percent.

The situation reminds me of the Bible’s parable of the sower; it depicts a farmer scattering seeds. Some of the seeds land in the rocks and are eaten by birds. Others land in the weeds and get choked off. But some land in good soil and flourish.

The typical civic mindset conceives of the problem as too few seeds or the wrong kinds of seeds. If only the community hit upon the right kind of seeds or ideas, the thinking goes, it would thrive.

But the reality in most places is that there simply isn’t enough good soil to germinate the seeds. Most communities I visit have great ideas raining down on them every day. The people I meet often blow me away with what they come up with. But most of the good ideas are landing on the rocks or in the weeds.

The challenge in places like Rhode Island is not necessarily coming up with amazing ideas, but rather in coming up with ideas that have cultural resonance such that they appeal to the average person.

There must also be a political path to implementation.

Indeed, if you look at the cities that have achieved notice for their accomplishments, it’s usually as much or more an implementation story than an idea story. Most of the transportation changes implemented by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan were not original ideas. The real lesson to take away from New York is less the ideas than the implementation strategy. It’s about a mayor who provided air cover and empowerment to his department chief. And about a commissioner who used very low-cost pilot projects, often done with little more than cans of paint, to create working demonstration projects without getting bogged down in endless planning studies and red tape.

True, some cities have better ideas than others. But the bigger divide is between can-do and can’t-do cities, or perhaps more realistically, cities in which its easier versus harder to get things done.

Chicago is “the city that works,” and while it has its problems, it has certainly navigated the challenge of deindustrialization better than most. Part of that is its longstanding can-do ability, from the Burnham Plan (which contained a lengthy appendix exploring various aspects of implementation) to today’s nearly all-powerful mayor’s office. In Indianapolis, leaders developed a civic development strategy around sports hosting that culturally resonated in the home of the Indianapolis 500 and “Hoosier Hysteria” over high school hoops. It also stayed the course for many decades through administrations of both parties. Conversely, Cincinnati has gone through hell and back just to get a starter streetcar line built.

There needs to be a shift in our thinking that rebalances generating ideas and carrying them out. It matters both what we do and that we can get things done. Many places would be well served to spend more time focusing on what they can do to create pathways to implementation, both for the innovative ideas and the ordinary business of running the shop well.

For a place like Rhode Island, that means digging into the past to unearth the cultural intelligence necessary to create plans that can be broadly embraced. This is as much anthropology as economics.

Traditional prescriptions such as building a tech economy may be reasonable, but don’t compute for the man on the street in a post-industrial town. Whatever the package of proposed solutions, there has to be enough resonance to make a majority of folks believe there’s something in it for them—and it has to feel like home. That needs to be combined with a path to victory through the political system.

It’s a tall order to be sure, one calling for strong and enlightened leadership. With profound systemic problems assailing Rhode Island, the need for leadership means there’s a lot riding on the outcome of this year’s gubernatorial race. Will there be actual implemented change or only more of the same?