Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Clusters of innovation, cluster nuclei, Utah and the Gulf.

In the past few posts, I have been talking about other peoples research. Since Phil Windley was kind enough to mention Central Exchange in his blog, I thought it might be nice to mention my research into clusters of innovation, national competitiveness, and how I first met Phil.

I read a lot of academic papers from other countries. At the time, I worked for a Wall Street firm and I used that reading to trace the flow of new ideas from academia into corporations, hoping to spot some investment opportunities.

A few years earlier, Michael Porter had defined clusters as “geographically proximate groups of interconnected companies and associated institutions in a particular field, linked by commonalities and complementarities”, which is a fancy way of saying some geographic areas are really skilled at a particular set of trades, something any student of history notices immediately. Encouraging clusters soon became very popular among governments, which apparently need to be told before they notice that sort of thing.

And I had noticed that myself, except that the cluster weren’t centered on institutions, or companies, they were centered on specific people.

You think that such people would be human fireworks, sending off sparks of innovation like skyrockets. Turns out that wasn’t the case.

Oh, they were usually pretty smart, but the one thing they all had in common was that they often made everyone else around them more ambitious; smarter, faster, more inventive, .. better.

I had identified a few of them in Europe, and I decided to see if I could find the ones here in America, and goose them into taking action. You see, a lot of those sorts of people had been successful entrepreneurs in the 1990’s, and had retired by the time of the recession, when America needed them the most.

Which lead me to Utah. I had long noticed that Utah was very atypical, having far more concentration of innovation and talent than I would have expected. I decided to find out who the cluster nucleus was that was in the middle of that…which is where I met Phil Windley.

I have watched Phil over the years, and Utah; and a bunch of other states, including Nebraska, New Jersey and my own Illinois.

Y’know, I like Nebraska, wonderful people, great senators (Hagel, Nelson) and, in general the sort of place I would have liked to move to. Unlike Utah, however, it’s almost dead, in the technological innovation sense.
Not that they aren’t pretty good, technology wise, there. Over the years I have come to know quite a few of the techies in the area.

My opinion is that they don’t have a cluster nucleus to get them started down the path.

My other home state, New Jersey, had a whole bunch of cluster nuclei.   For example a lot of companies in my area can be traced back to a small group of people.

It’s different here in Illinois. Start ups require a lot of political clout to survive, and that’s in short supply for techies, so we don’t have much innovation here.  

If we want to solve the problems unveiled in Katrina and Rita’s wake, we need to get cluster nuclei into the area, and give them enough clout and presence to have an effect.
That’s what I meant by collective action, and that’s why I suggested a sort of “peace corps” for the Gulf.

A cluster nucleus doesn’t need much more than a chance to have an effect, but, in my experience, it is really easy to stop them cold, using politics, and that’s what usually happens. So we can toss all the money we want into the Gulf, but unless we do something more, nothing is going to change. I am hoping a “peace corps” for the Gulf will fulfill that function.


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