Doing Better: Extensive collaboration key to NC’s future prosperity

North Carolina’s future depends on how well we adapt and respond to a rapidly changing world.

And that means preparing next generation entrepreneurial leaders and communities for what the military calls a “VUCA” world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

In this preparation, however, we shouldn’t go it alone. We should be looking far beyond our boundaries at best practices for developing the kind of change-makers we need and finding like-minded communities who we can collaborate with.

One of the biggest keys to strengthening our economy: helping our communities develop robust innovation ecosystems that can foster entrepreneurial growth. How do we also ensure that, as we build up these innovation clusters, they nurture a diverse array of entrepreneurs and create opportunities for inclusive innovation?

Inclusive innovation

That’s the purpose of a new, national, multi-city learning collaborative called Forward Cities (which Christopher helped start). Its goal is to accelerate entrepreneurial activity and networks, particularly for minority owned businesses in priority neighborhoods in Durham, Detroit, New Orleans, and Cleveland, while also accelerating learning and collaboration among the four cities.

Each of these cities is in the process of reinventing itself as a dynamic, high-growth entrepreneurial hub in the wake of economic collapse. Witnessing this transformation as one wanders through high-tech incubators, emerging food hubs, and popular downtown lofts is electric.

At the same time, each city is also trying to figure out how these boom times can benefit parts of the city that are at risk of getting left behind – specifically under-developed commercial corridors in poorer communities of color. In New Orleans, for instance, 60 percent of the city is African-American while only 2 percent of the business receipts are generated by African-American owned businesses.

In joining Forward Cities, each city has committed to addressing this challenge collectively. Within each community, an inclusive Innovation Council has been formed of community, business, policy, and university leaders. Each council will focus on as many as three neighborhoods to support the growth of more locally and minority owned businesses. The councils are working with the Urban Institute and local data partners to map current conditions and track progress against a commonly agreed set of outcomes.

Members of each city’s Innovation Council, along with national thought leaders and funders, will meet four times over the course of two years to compare notes, share best practices, and explore opportunities for collaboration. The kick-off meeting took place in December in New Orleans, where city teams had a chance to tour distressed communities, visit with incubators such as Propeller, 4.0 Schools, and Idea Village, learn from investment funds focused on minority entrepreneurship such as PowerMoves NOLA, meet with Mayor Landrieu and city leaders about inclusive innovation strategies, and meet with one another to talk about current strategies and future goals.

National platform

The next meeting is next month in Detroit. There, participants will tour communities like Mexican Town and learn how Southwest Solutions has enhanced the community’s main commercial thoroughfare through a combination of innovative public-private housing and business development investments and technical assistance services in partnership with organizations like ProsperUS Detroit. Tech Town will share how it leveraged its high-tech incubator in Mid-Town to provide business support and investment in seven surrounding, poorer neighborhoods.

This includes a highly successful retail boot camp that connects emerging entrepreneurs with a network of mentors and investors, such as Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and the Detroit Micro Loan Collaborative through the Michigan Women’s Foundation. City leaders will convene in Durham this December and in Cleveland in June 2016, with best practices and emerging strategies being featured on the Forward Cities national learning platform.

Building on this multi-city learning collaborative model and following the Emerging Issues Forum, Innovation Reconstructed, the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State is now partnering up with Forward Impact (which Christopher runs), the UNC system, Duke University, UNC-TV, RTI, and others to launch Innovate North Carolina – an effort to bring up to five cities from across the state together to accelerate place-based innovation and create opportunities for best practice sharing and collaboration.

Accelerating innovation in our communities is hard, yet absolutely critical, work. For North Carolina to prosper, we need to foster strong connections across state lines and also within our own borders.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.