Tools exist to help NC spur local innovation, entrepreneurship

North Carolina’s economy is dependent on how well our major cities and “micropolitans” – areas with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 – can attract and retain talent and foster business development.

As these communities strive to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, their potential tools range from fostering a robust talent pipeline, to building strong enabling environments for small businesses, to attracting new sources of investment capital. But often these strategies are driven by private sector, nonprofit and education leaders, with policymakers lagging behind.

Fortunately, these public leaders can learn from a growing number of tools and case studies.

This past December, Forward Cities (which Christopher co-founded) partnered with Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy to host a half-day retreat on the role that municipal policy plays in strengthening inclusive innovation in cities.

One featured speaker was Simon Giles, the Global Cities Lead from Accenture. He shared a diagnostic tool that Accenture developed with Nesta and Catapult Cities called CITIE. Based on extensive research, CITIE offers a set of policy levers that city governments can use to catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship.

It includes a comprehensive diagnostic tool that helps policymakers assess their city’s efforts on a number of dimensions. Among them:

▪ How well its regulatory environment fosters disruptive innovation.

▪ Availability of public and private spaces to help nurture high-growth companies.

▪ Use of publicly available data to optimize services and provide the raw material to spark private solutions to public challenges.

▪ Strength of a city’s strategic vision for its innovative future.

Policy audits

In addition to the publicly available framework and diagnostic tool, CITIE’s partners have created helpful case studies ranging from Helsinki to Chicago to Seoul. Five cities across North Carolina are looking to apply this strategic approach to municipal policymaking through InnovateNC. In partnership with Duke’s Sanford School, the participating cities (Wilmington, Wilson, Pembroke, Greensboro, and Asheville) are doing policy audits to determine the best strategies for cultivating innovation and entrepreneurship. There’s a special focus on increasing access for traditionally disconnected and disenfranchised communities.

For example, while a city might offer a robust set of incentives for high-tech, high-growth entrepreneurship, it may miss the boat entirely on creating a supportive policy environment for emerging “main street” businesses that benefit from subsidized retail space, microlending, access to affordable office space, and technical assistance.

One model that city leaders in North Carolina should study is Pittsburgh’s newly released Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation. Squarely focused on equity and inclusion while trying to stimulate Pittsburgh’s diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem, the road map lays out a set of recommendations, such as addressing the digital divide, empowering city-to-citizen engagement, and promoting the local business environment. Informed by local entrepreneurs, the plan has very specific ideas, including adapting and testing local business products and services within city government and subsidizing space in local co-working venues for applicants who aren’t currently able to afford it.

Pittsburgh’s road map also lays out strategies for improving internal operations, including streamlining the city’s procurement process, improving technology capacity and education for its civil workforce, modernizing public infrastructure, and improving public transit.

Unique assets

The key takeaway: To be competitive, cities require highly efficient, fiscally sound spending on infrastructure that produces savings to be reinvested in growth.

On April 7, State Treasurer Janet Cowell is hosting a conference for municipal leaders across North Carolina on how local governments can develop this game plan. Named “Sparking Sustainability and Innovation,” the focus is on how communities can develop strategies that produce new and sustainable revenue – and then reinvest these dollars in creating economic growth.

All of these conversations are linked by a set of important questions:

▪ What unique assets does a community have that can be translated into new growth opportunities?

▪ What are some short-term and medium-term goals for economic growth and community well being?

▪ What are actionable strategies to achieve these goals?

Answering these questions requires public and private leaders to work together. But they shouldn’t feel they are on their own. Best practices exist, and ample opportunities abound when we take the time to notice them.

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.