Spud Marshall | Cultivate local innovation ecosystem

Editor’s note: This is the fourth column in a series running every Monday in March.

For many years, I threw around the word “innovation” as if I knew what it meant.

Innovation was sexy. Innovation was about creating the future. Innovation resulted in change.

But do we truly have any idea what innovation means, and more importantly, where innovation comes from?

If you dig into the history books, to be labeled an innovator was not something you aspired to be. In the 1600s, “innovator” was a negative term, much like the phrase “heretic” was used to shame individuals attempting to change church doctrine. Innovation was something that you could be imprisoned for, not something that got your face on the front of a Forbes magazine.

Fortunately, it’s no longer the 1600s.

Yet in the past couple hundred years, although our understanding of innovation has grown, our understanding for how to make it flourish still lags.

In 2010, I set out on my own journey to spark innovation in the Centre Region by launching an organization called New Leaf Initiative ( www.newleafinitiative.org). Our goal from Day One was simple: to create a neutral space for the community and student body to collaborate and innovate together.

It didn’t take long for us to realize one clear problem — we weren’t a company focused on creating a tangible widget or providing a concrete service. Our focus was on fostering a culture of innovation, and the nature of that work was quite nebulous and amorphous, especially in the early years when nothing of its kind had existed in our community. We quickly found out that people were excited to talk about how much they wanted innovation, but they were unsure what the success metrics looked like for an organization trying to promote just that.

And so we got suggestions that we should narrow our audience or clarify our service offerings. People wanted innovation, but they wanted it in a neat and tidy package that they could easily wrap their heads around.

But there’s a slight problem: Innovation is never neat.

It is not something you can plan for or maintain like a manicured garden. Rather, innovation emerges through random bursts of color, diversity and creativity, much like a rainforest is home to thousands of species of plants and flowers.

And in the same way you can’t expect to grow a rainforest overnight, we can’t expect innovation to happen by simply throwing some money, a few panels and a task force behind it while we measure our return on investment.

The secret we came to realize is that innovation is all about the weeds.

What I mean is that innovation requires developing an ecosystem in which new ideas can flourish. It requires nurturing the soil in a way so that any type of plant life has the potential to grow. And often, the weeds that pop up are the unexpected surprises that have the most potential for impact in our communities.

In the Centre Region, our innovation ecosystem has come a long way from when I first got immersed in it four years ago. It is budding in the random spaces of our town that many of us are largely unaware of.

Innovation happens when a group of 10th-grade boys are pumped for a snow day because it means they can walk to Make-Space ( www.themakespace.com) to design and tinker with 3-D printers.

Innovation happens when two college roommates at the co.space ( www.theco space.com) stay up late into the night building their prototype for living aquaponic furniture.

Innovation happens when a community forum on local food hosted by New Leaf lasts long into the night as local government, farmers, students and business owners come around a table to talk about their collective work.

Innovation is all around us, and our community has become incredibly receptive and supportive of nurturing the random spaces that allow new ideas to emerge. For me, this is the greatest success I can point to in our community — and it’s only the beginning.

On April 1, the Schreyer Honors College will host the Shaping the Future Summit , which will be open to the entire community. I’ll be attending and highly encourage everyone to join. Not only will you get to hear from an amazing speaker, Peter Diamandis, but you will also get to meet face to face with some of the key players in our local innovation ecosystem.

At the summit, we will have an interactive map that will let you virtually step into the Centre Region’s innovation ecosystem with live video feeds to a variety of spaces where new ideas are hatched in our community. I invite you to step into this new culture with us and be an active participant as we innovate our collective future.