Building a Better Normal: Innovation in a Crisis

iStock: Kertlis

Note – This is the second in a series of posts on building a better normal. I want to open a discussion on how to reimagine our future following the current health crisis. As I write this, our nation is struggling with a legacy of express and embedded racism. The disparities in our society are systemic, undeniable, and heartbreaking. Here at the Fund, we are listening, we are learning, and we are changing. My commitment is this: the Fund exists to create a better future, and our work will seek to change how we use, manage, and govern our shared waters.

I’ve come to hate the word “innovation.” It’s lost its punch, its meaning. At one time, innovation connoted something special, unique, even powerful. Now it seems to be another bit of corporate-speak—a label used to dress up an otherwise unappealing initiative, product, or service. Or worse, it’s used to justify tinkering, gadgeteering, or even hobbyism. But, I’m stubborn, so I still use the term, even if a bit less frequently.

An innovation is something new that has impact. It is a change that creates a new dimension of performance. Innovation does something—it is creativity with a job to do.

Innovation is not the same as invention. Invention creates a new ability; innovation takes that ability and creates value/impact with it. While inventions can become innovations, innovations do not require inventions.

Bottomline—innovation is about creating value; it’s not about gadgets.

Like everything, there is an art to innovation, but mostly it’s good old-fashioned work that requires discipline and practice.

The first step is to spot the opportunity to innovate. Innovation is useful where there is a gap of some kind that, if bridged, solves a problem. One helpful framework is described in a brief article here, and in an even shorter video here, both by Peter Drucker.

Some gaps are more evident than others and filling some gaps lead to more impact than others.

The most obvious innovations solve efficiency gaps—producing the same output with fewer inputs (and expense). They are relatively easy to spot, results can happen quickly, and yet the impact is (generally) more limited. At the other extreme, gaps that have to do with perception, beliefs, and new knowledge are harder to see and generally more challenging to solve. Yet filling these voids often leads to systemic/structural change and outsized impacts. Creatively filling this latter category is of particular interest to us at the Fund.

In my last post, I hinted at a few innovation opportunities. There is the monitoring gap—driven by the growth of new technologies to see the health of our environment. There is the gap between what our water “utilities” do now, and what they might do tomorrow—as the critical anchor institution for our region. And there is the gap between the valuable things farmers grow, and the difficulty they face in sustaining their soils, their families, and our water. Additional opportunities are highlighted in our strategic plan.

As a region, we must not look past the moment we are in now. Many of our most vexing issues in the Great Lakes are not colorblind. We have to innovate to solve them and not solving them just isn’t an option.

To build a better future together, we have to be both impatient and committed to the long game. We have to hold dissonance and maintain focus. We have to work together while physically apart. But we have to “do.” We have to act. We have to get to work.

This work is stepping down the abstract “gaps” into the concerns that people have about them, building new solutions with and for those people.

The opportunities to make a better normal for the Great Lakes region involve combining new technologies, new financial tools, and new governance/operating models to change how we interact with one another and the water around us.

  • To fill the monitoring gap, let’s look for the actions not taken because the right information is not available at the right time and create a new way of doing things.
  • To help fill the gap between what our water institutions are now and what they could be, let’s look for elements of that new business model and try them out.
  • To help fill the agriculture gap, let’s look for new markets, new resources, and new activities on the land that create economic, ecological, and societal wealth for those who coax food out of the ground.

The Fund can help build a better normal for our region and we’re continuing to make investments in our shared future. We provide financing, advice, and connections to help get the doing done. If you have ideas about gaps that need to be filled, or innovations that should be tried, please reach out.

…Coming in part 3: how to work with us to launch an innovation.

Stay safe and well,
David Rankin, Executive Director


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