Trust Is the Innovation We Need Most


Trust Is the Innovation We Need Most

By John Freisinger, Executive Director, InnovateABQ (City Alive on August 27, 2019)

In 2017, we completed work on the first phase of the anchor site for Albuquerque’s innovation district, InnovateABQ. Two years later, we’re now entering our second growth phase. We wanted to reexamine our progress, successes and failures, so we asked the community, “How can we more closely reflect Albuquerque’s culture of innovation?” The answers surprised us.  

We realized public perception about our culture did not reflect our goals. The initial 29,000 square-feet of space filled quickly. The majority of our early tenants were engaged in the commercialization of technologies from our laboratories and universities and, predictably, created a public perception that the culture of InnovateABQ is exclusionary and centered around technology transfer. Paradoxically, when we polled the original tenants about the growing culture here at InnovateABQ they used words like “inclusive”, “welcoming” and “dynamic”. Both perceptions are valid and valuable and helped inform the work we have ahead of us. 

So if our goal is one of creating a culture of inclusive innovation, and we can admit that we have not yet achieved that goal, how do we take the first step to achieve the goal? Taking a lesson from the innovators and entrepreneurs that we serve, we are deeply focused on expanding trust.  

The What and the Why

Functionally, an innovation district should be “a geographic area where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators” according to the Brooking Institute. This accurately describes “what” an innovation district is, but does not describe the “why” or the “how” of innovation districts — which are the most important parts. 

To me, an exemplary innovation district would be one that seeks intractable problems and sets audacious goals to solve them. It would celebrate success, commend failure and honor the willingness to try. It would be guided by abundance thinking, open collaboration and supportive engagement. Most importantly, innovation districts should be based on deep trust. 

If we begin with the goal of creating an exemplary innovation district guided by deep trust, can we get to this ideal from where we are today? I believe we are headed in the right direction, but we are not there yet. 

Why Innovation Districts Struggle

“Innovation districts are contending with the challenge of linking innovation and inclusion,” says the Global Institute on Innovation Districts, “which will lead to the development of inclusion and social innovation strategies to guide their growth.” The article goes on to further describe the widespread nature of the problem, “The application of social innovation in innovation districts is still in a nascent, experimental phase. There are, in general, more declarations of aspiration and intent than actual models and initiatives ripe for replication and adaption.” 

Admittedly, at InnovateABQ, we have only been able to reach a small portion of the community that is our great city. There exists an opportunity for us to invite more people to the innovation economy, but we struggle with accessing communities where trust needs to be restored. 

At InnovateABQ, we have chosen to undertake the effort to build a robust trust relationship with our neighbors and the community. We seek to listen for ways in which we can serve as a friendly doorway through which our neighbors can access the larger innovation ecosystem. 

Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel laureate economist, once referred to trust as “the lubricant of social systems.” The innovation culture, being a social system, would be impossible without a significant amount of trust. After interviewing hundreds of highly successful entrepreneurs, author Stephen M.R. Covey of The Speed of Trust, found that high trust environments are essential for the success of entrepreneurial teams. The more individuals trust each other, the better the team performs. Or, as it applies to our work, taking the time to build and sustain trust is the key to creating an exemplary innovation district. 

Help Us Build Trust: Next Steps

At InnovateABQ, we have placed a high priority on our neighborhood outreach efforts to create these doorways for people in underserved communities. This begins with our efforts to both invite people onto our campus and to travel to their communities to begin the dialog with them with no expectation of an outcome. We seek to listen for ways in which we can serve as a friendly doorway through which our neighbors can access the larger innovation ecosystem. Not necessarily a place where problems get solved, but where an open exchange of ideas and resources can allow for experimentation, failure, reassessment and sometimes, solutions. Where you can trust to work with people who share these ideals. 

Our neighbors, including Martineztown, Huning Highlands, Downtown Neighborhoods Association (DNA) and EDo have placed a high-level importance on quality of life issues. Members of our surrounding communities have been very involved in helping us shape the physical characteristic planned for our site including safer street programs, public art, building use planning and creation of connecting bike trails and parkways. 

An opportunity for growth exists in improving access for our neighbors, and those in other neighborhoods, to the wealth of resources available within our innovation ecosystem. Throughout the innovation ecosystem, we have a myriad of job training and educational opportunities, start-up and scale-up business support for community and minority-owned businesses, and programs for wealth building and access to capital. Our proximity to these neighborhoods, our copious surface parking lot, and the Central transportation corridor make us a convenient place for our neighbors and all Burqueños to access all of the support services our ecosystem has to offer. 

We need bold members of communities around the city to identify gaps in which our planning process has failed to create a campus for inclusive innovation. Building a culture of trust between our communities may seem like an intractable problem. But these are the types of challenges that drive the innovation culture. With your help, we can create the ideal culture of innovation in Albuquerque and we’d like to offer InnovateABQ as a home for that work.  

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