I’ve spent a great deal of time recently thinking about the rate at which people are ready to adopt new ideas and new possibilities, and therefore big changes. Back in 2008, stepping into my new role as CEO of the Austin Technology Council, I heard every excuse as to why tech was not and would not be an impactful part of the Austin economy. As we brought forward data suggesting the exact opposite, we were still met with resistance. We were told we were going too fast. That Austin wasn’t Silicon Valley. That we didn’t have a startup scene. Or simply, “Our city is too small.” What I learned from the Austin economic transition, was that human nature, and our fear of change, can often cloud our ability to see the bigger picture, to think outside the norm, and in many cases, can keep us comfortably stagnant at a time of great potential and urgency. There is an art to pacing the development of a community, its economy, and its transformation; to acknowledge this aspect of human nature, and then respectfully choose to reject fear and become visionary leaders of innovation.
Over the years, I have found that the pace of technological transformation can be so fast that it gives instant rise to fear. Many people feel as though they haven’t kept up or that they haven’t felt able to keep up. Technology and the rapid pace of innovation can be overwhelming in how it changes us and changes our environment. As a result of this fear, people have a tendency to try to move slower, to take back control at times of uncertainty. Ironically, it is in these times of great transformation that we need to trust ourselves and our peers and take the leap into the unknown; we need to move quickly to keep up and stay ahead.
But what I often see when doing this work, is the debilitating fear of the unknown future. We fear what we can’t see or haven’t experienced. People fear change, in part, because of our assumption that change is disconnected from the past. That if we accept and adopt new change, we are leaving the past behind and becoming disconnected from it. This is simply not true. We always bring the past with us and incorporate the learnings into our successes in the future. But how easily we remember our defeats and our failures instead of honoring our successes. It’s a harmful habit we have developed and must work hard to overcome it. We need to have the confidence to trust in the future, in our own capabilities and successes, and take a leap of faith to stretch ourselves and lean on our learnings from the past to affect positive, intelligent change in the future.
Milwaukee, for example, has successfully transitioned into very different economies many times over the centuries. From fur trading, to agriculture and farming, to manufacturing, Milwaukee’s past boast numerous successful economic shifts. I see the potential of this city, of the Midwest region as a whole. The talent, grit, and resources here give Midwesterners an advantage to become the next leading region for technological innovation. Unfortunately, if we don’t move with urgency at the pace of technological advancement, we will lose this opportunity to be innovative leaders to other regions or countries who have more focus than us, specifically China. The alternative to moving quickly with intention is getting left behind. We must be intentional about the future we want to accomplish.
Today, the sentiments in the Midwest are similar to those I was met with in Austin a decade ago. Understandably so, Milwaukee doesn’t want to be compared to Austin in the same way Austin didn’t want to be compared to Silicon Valley. Big change takes time, intention, and risk. We should acknowledge that our human nature requires us to take time to accept and make change, even to accept the thought of change. A decade later, Austin is proud to be one of the major tech leaders and most successful innovation economies in the United States.
Trust in the bigger picture and working towards a greater purpose is a stabilizing force in this era of innovation and uncertainty. We must get to a place to look beyond ourselves and our individual fears that are holding us back. We must do better for our children and our children’s children. We must lose the excuses and commit to our responsibility to take control of our economic development, to move forward and not get left behind.
For the last few months, I’ve been in Milwaukee diving deeper into the economic potential of the Midwest. I left with a renewed sense of optimism and excitement, specifically with regards to the amount of invention and innovation coming from the region already. Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio all came in higher than anticipated in patent and research and development spending. Steve Case recently bragged that about 20% of all new patents in America are currently coming from the Midwestern states. While we are seeing an impressive amount of innovation and invention already, the missing link to accelerate their economic growth is going to be a doubling down on the commercialization of these inventions.
Often I’ve found that in discussing startup culture, innovation, invention, etc., there is confusion between the varying elements required to fuel a healthy system. While we can be proud and excited that the Midwest fares well in the creation of new solutions and products, we’ll need to do a stronger job of distinguishing between the creative IP process and the culture and expertise required to commercialize inventions in the marketplace. I’ve met with numerous industry leaders this past week in Milwaukee who are ready to capitalize on the tech boom that is happening in other parts of the country. The good news is that the innovation and invention is already booming in the Midwest. As I see it, in order for successful commercialization to occur, the next big step is for industry and government leaders to shift culturally towards fostering robust startup activity. The punch line to this story is that while patent and research and development activity are high in the Midwest, most cities in the five states I mentioned rank in the bottom quartile of the Kauffman Index. Cities in these promising states will not only have to shift culture, but very seriously consider importing the entrepreneurial talent they need to shift into innovation economy gear.