Building Seattle’s Innovation Engine – Be Part of the Story!

– A story about innovation in the Emerald City –

When I arrived in Seattle 18 months ago, I quickly realized two things.  First, this city is bustling with so much creativity that it is on the verge of becoming the next Silicon Valley.  Seattle has the cultural capacity to become a leading innovation center for the world, especially around participatory government and social technologies as they play out in a burgeoning green economy.  And we’re on the verge of taking things to an entirely new level.

The second thing I noticed was that I kept meeting people who should already know each other, but didn’t.  I’d sit down with Sarah Jaynes of the Washington Progress Alliance – an organization dedicated to building infrastructure for the progressive movement – and have a chat a few days later with Jeni Krencicki Barcelos at the Three Degrees Project only to learn that she had helped build the Progressive Ideas Network – another organization dedicated to building infrastructure for progressives.  Yet, they hadn’t met each other.  I found dozens of people like this with a wide range of backgrounds and interests.

So much potential collaboration untapped.

Some might think of this as a problem.  I saw it as an incredible opportunity.  The prospect that we could unleash the talents, insights, and experiences of the Seattle scene riveted me.  How could we effectively bring people together and catalyze this awesome creative scene?

Then, in early November, Alex Steffen of Worldchanging gave a two-part lecture series at Town Hall Seattle.  He galvanized a room full of innovators with his call to make Seattle the first carbon neutral city in North America by 2030.  The buzz was so intense that you had to lean close and yell to be heard 10 inches away.  The hair stands up on my arms when I think about the enthusiasm in that room!

During the same week, I was thrown into a slurry of amazing conversations because the Sightline Institute and Climate Solutions had brought me in to give a workshop to environmental communicators throughout the region about framing and values-based communication.  In the span of four days I met 70 talented innovators who could leverage a substantial amount of change in the world.

Conversations percolated about idea incubators for social entrepreneurship, investments in communications infrastructure, and the fervor we all felt about Alex’s call-to-action.  Without hesitation, I went to work turning this energy into momentum.  During the months of November and December, I had four or five meetings a day with people who could take our city and the region to the next level.  These conversations created a lot of great ideas, some of which were captured in a prospectus we wrote to build an innovation engine for Seattle. (download the PDF!)

What is an innovation engine?  Here’s our working definition:

A set of social practices and organizational structures that promote ongoing stimulation of new ideas, combined with mechanisms that can reliably and effectively channel those ideas into a flourishing network of collaborative projects.

We talked about mapping out our movement and developing tools for community engagement.  We considered other models for innovation that had worked successfully in the past.  And we pulled together a set of functional elements that, if combined thoughtfully, could change the world:

  • The cultural values so pervasive in the Pacific Northwest (free thinking, pragmatic, down-to-earth, explorers who are comfortable taking risks);
  • A sense of our shared identity as “Seattle Creatives”;
  • A shared vision that organizes us into a coherent movement across time;
  • A powerfully structured collaboration network built on an open architecture that encourages us to see what others in our community are doing and combine our efforts;
  • An open architecture that allows us to work in parallel, find synergies, and share our practices with others around the world;
  • A movement map that identifies who the movers and shakers are in all the important roles of a social movement;
  • A pressure cooker for applying leadership through collective action that pressures our local officials to act boldly around our vision;
  • The creation of world-class idea incubators to hatch new ideas and implement them (artistic communities, research centers, social entrepreneur labs, etc.);
  • And a comprehensive planning process that creates neutral ground across governmental, business, and non-profit sectors to (a) bring convergence to our  strategies around regional efforts and (b) provide consistency across sectors with our long-term vision of becoming a carbon neutral city.

At this point in the story, we’re turning momentum into action.  The list of collaborators continues to grow as emails are passed around and social events are staged to bring us together.  We are setting about the exciting work of building a dynamic, engaged, and ever-expanding community to envision our collective future and bring about the best of possible worlds. Potential partners include Sustainable Seattle, Re-Vision Labs, Sustainable Wallingford, SCALLOPS, ICLE, Seattle’s Climate Partnership, Great City, Cascade Land Conservancy, Undriving, Front Seat, Guenther Media, Groundwire and many more.

At the same time, we are reaching out to others around the world who are doing similar work.  Natural allies include Post Carbon Institute, Transition Towns, Common Current, Identity Campaigning, Carbon Neutral Stirling, and many others both locally and dispersed through our social networks.

Soon we will have our first strategic planning session (March 13th) and really get to work.  Things are just getting started, yet the profound feeling of history is upon us.  This project is growing organically throughout the community.  It is fundamentally empowering and exciting.  And it asserts itself into the world as an example of change arising through local networks and accomplishing big things in the spirit of openness and collaboration.

And the story isn’t finished.  In fact, it’s just beginning… now is your chance to help build the future.  Join us and help tell the story of change.  Make yourself a central character in this unfolding drama of creation.  Be the change you wish to see in the world.

We don’t have a website up for the project yet, so Cognitive Policy Works is providing a temporary forum for discussions as we continue the birthing process.  Please add comments, pose questions, offer ideas, and let us know who else should be involved.

Working with you for the common good,

Joe Brewer

Project Coordinator, Seattle’s Innovation Engine

(Write me a note if you want to speak directly about this exciting movement)

Update 2-9-10: Stay connected to this project as it unfolds.  Follow us on Twitter.  We’ll have a website up soon too!

Update 2-11-10: Sign up here to receive announcements, event invitations, and opportunities to collaborate with other Seattle innovators!


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Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.