How Vancouver Can Foster Innovators

Photo Credit: The Vancouver Sun

Photo Credit: The Vancouver Sun

From the birth of Greenpeace to the conceptualization of the 100-mile diet, Vancouver has long been known as a place that spurs big ideas — ideas with such propensity to stick, we coined the term “Vancouverism.” While some might say these ideas have come from exceptionally creative and charismatic individuals attracted to the region by its beauty and access to recreation, I would argue the city itself is primed to foster innovation.

Through its expansive networks for sharing ideas and an insistence on being at the cutting edge of social and environmental progress, Vancouver has developed an environment where young innovators thrive. Our next step as a city must be to peel back dated regulations that keep these ideas in the box, or worse, drive them elsewhere.

My colleagues and I at the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC) have had the pleasure of interacting with hundreds of incredible young innovators across the city, and we’ve come to recognize in them a skill set that can’t be taught in the classroom. These are the skills of the curator, the choreographer, and the conductor, and they are cultivated not by hours at the library but by the design of our physical and social environments.

Let me introduce the curator, the choreographer, and the conductor.

The curator plays the role of the explorer, looking and listening not only for what is already being said and done, but, also, for opportunities that have been ignored. The conditions conducive to this type of exploration are abundant in Vancouver. We live in a culture that values space to think and time to play — a place of dense and diverse urban conditions, bounded by ocean and mountains that ensure we consistently rub shoulders with individuals who see the world from a different point of view. Through consistent exposure to diverse ideas, the curator discerns the essential few from the trivial many. This process was adopted by the founders of the Chinatown Experiment, a space for pop-up artistic and retail events, which recognized an unmet need in Vancouver.

The choreographer is also cultivated through the social structure of Vancouver. The choreographer brings together unique personalities and through synchronizing their movements, builds a story — an art form that is essential for turning the idea of the individual into a collective movement worthy of global attention.

Vancouver facilitates this through innovative education models and established networks for sharing big ideas, expertise, feedback, and tools. For instance, organizations like eatART and Design Nerds bring together engineers, designers, artists, and environmental enthusiasts to show what can be accomplished with renewable energy sources and public space design. Alternative education models, such as those developed by Groundswell, CityStudio, and the Centre for Digital Media, focus on building momentum and mentorship networks around the ideas of their students. And sharing models such as Trade School Vancouver give individuals an outlet to test the market for their ideas in a low-risk environment.

Finally, the conductor creates the space that the members of the orchestra need to tell their stories. Companies that are built on a passion for social, cultural, and environmental issues are opening the space for their clients and customers to tell new stories about themselves. More importantly, they are stories people are eager to share, such as the local origin of the food they eat and the responsible processes used to develop the clothes they wear.

Through its strong brand identity, Vancouver has opened the space for local innovators to contribute to its story on a global stage. For instance, our notoriety as a city that rejected freeways and set the goal to become the greenest city in the world by 2020 has established a space for ideas related to environmental responsibility and city building to flourish.

We’ve done a great deal correct to cultivate the next generation of young innovators, but we would be doing ourselves a disservice not to recognize our weaknesses.

Our primary weakness is in our inability to support Vancouver’s innovators as they grow into the global marketplace.

Innovation, by definition, means doing something new, and when we attempt to regulate new products, services, and business models using old frameworks, we put the brakes on the innovations we most need to succeed.

For example, some companies have difficulty getting the right city permit approvals because they don’t tick a box in terms of land use or zoning since they don’t really fit into an existing manufacturing category. We need the means to create that box instead of risking an exodus of innovation due to frustrating red tape.

Vancouver has an incredible ecosystem for building innovative, creative, and sustainable business. Through the physical and social design of the city, we are equipping young people with the skills for jobs that don’t exist yet.

Our next big challenge will be innovating our regulatory systems to ensure young innovators can continue to grow and thrive.

Originally published by The Vancouver Sun.