It has been two years since five communities across North Carolina embarked on InnovateNC, an effort to accelerate new business starts and small business growth (particularly within disconnected neighborhoods) through a multi-city learning collaborative.
Recently, leaders from Wilmington/Carolina Coast, Wilson, Pembroke, Greensboro and Asheville convened for the final time as a group to reflect on progress to date, share their updated strategic plans and discuss next steps. What was abundantly clear: Real strides are being made, and there is much to be learned from this work.
InnovateNC was started by a group of 10 statewide partners (including Forward Impact) to achieve three outcomes: strengthen local inclusive innovation ecosystems in each of the participating communities; increase opportunities for collaboration and shared learning between the communities; and create a model for economic development that can be replicated by other communities in North Carolina and other states nationally.
Once each city was chosen among 18 other communities through a highly competitive process in 2015, they were immediately charged with putting together an “Innovation Council” responsible for building local support, leading the planning process, and participating in the statewide meetings and site visits.
Each council includes 25 to 30 local leaders from diverse backgrounds that represent the important facets of an innovation ecosystem. Among them: education leaders focused on developing next generation entrepreneurial problem solvers; entrepreneurial support organizations such as local incubators, investors and technical assistance providers; data analysts who track economic development trends; policy leaders; and media outlets that can help shape the community’s emerging entrepreneurial narrative.
Additionally, the presence of local entrepreneurs on the councils made a significant difference in making sure the emerging strategies to support small business growth were relevant and could serve a broad range of businesses – especially emerging enterprises led by women and entrepreneurs of color.
In each case, the community worked with InnovateNC partners to help drive this work forward. For example, the Institute for Emerging Issues, the N.C. Office of Science Technology and Innovation, RTI International and Forward Impact developed a robust Community Innovation Asset Mapping Tool that each community completed and is now publicly available for other communities to use.
The same is true of the attitudinal survey that participating communities deployed at the beginning of the effort and again this spring to determine shifts in perception about the growing health of the local community’s entrepreneurial climate (which in most cases was quite dramatic).
Similarly, communities were provided a strategic planning template and facilitated guidance from Forward Impact and UNC’s Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise that helped them determine an agreed upon set of target outcomes (such as increasing the number of new business starts, growing the number of livable wage jobs, attracting additional outside investment and redeveloping local innovation districts), strategies to achieve these outcomes, and the necessary organizational structure and resources to put the plan into action.
Wilson partnered with UNC’s School of Public Policy to adapt a municipal policy planning tool called CITIE (that is typically used for much larger cities) to think through tweaks to their city planning and budget process that can increase support for the local entrepreneurial economy.
And each community partnered with UNC-TV to develop two documentary profiles of local entrepreneurs that will be included in a half-hour innovation special for UNC-TV’s North Carolina channel that will show this fall (and be featured on InnovateNC’s and UNC-TV’s websites).
Collectively, these efforts have yielded notable momentum within each of these communities that are reflected in Wilmington’s growing marine-life science cluster, UNC Pembroke’s vibrant downtown incubator and entrepreneurial output from the Lumbee Tribe, Wilson’s emerging Innovation and Arts District, Greensboro’s development of a high-tech/high-touch Navigator for disconnected entrepreneurs and Asheville’s climate data science incubator The Collider.
Other regions across North Carolina stand to learn from these efforts and, more importantly, the path to get there. It also puts our state on the map as a national model for inclusive economic development.
To realize this potential we need to help other communities across the state leverage the InnovateNC tools to strengthen their local innovation ecosystems (ideally with publicly provided planning support). Similarly, a public-private fund should be established to help micropolitan and under-connected metro areas put these plans into action to help accelerate their transition to a knowledge-based economy. Efforts should also be made to help these communities connect with one another and share promising practices through a virtual learning platform and regular meetings.
Through these efforts, we can better tell the story of North Carolina’s economic transformation – one community at a time.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a founding partner of HQ Community and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.