Empathy and Teamwork Are Key for Building Innovation Ecosystems


Maybe Ashoka is onto something after all! It wasn’t more than 15 minutes into this week’s Global Innovation Summit + Week that empathy came up in the context of creating innovation ecosystems. The predominant metaphor for the week is that of a rainforest, where we may all be competing for a finite amount of sunlight at the top, we must lock hands in the soil if we’re ever going to make it (the way that tall redwoods lock their root systems). In other words: innovation and entrepreneurship is not just about ruthless competition and individual triumph, but actually thrives in environments of trust, sharing, collaboration, and yes, empathy. Empathy was also a central theme in the panel discussion on building innovation teams, where the panelists unanimously acknowledged that being able to effectively listen to and understand your peers – even (and perhaps especially) when there is disagreement – is essential for building cohesion and for high performance.

The fundamental question we’re all here to grapple with is: how do we build innovation ecosystems at scale – whether at the community, city or even country level? How do we take lessons from the success story of Silicon Valley and apply them elsewhere around the globe so that we can keep up with the rapid pace of change in the world and maybe even leave things better for the next generation? We've heard from people within large manufacturing companies and law firms, local worker-owned coffee brewers, and even from the United Arab Emirates, all of whom are asking themselves what they can do to encourage and enable innovation.

Not surprisingly, there’s agreement that culture is king. Whether we’re talking about a classroom, a boardroom, or a government department, innovation won’t happen when people are risk averse, when failure is not an option, where hierarchies and bureaucracies quash creative thinking. But when talent at all levels and from diverse perspectives is given an opportunity to contribute and to build, this is where the magic happens. For many, this is a culture shift has to be actively encouraged and role modeled, often from an organization’s leadership.

The conference promised to be hands on, and indeed it was, with groups of 7-8 of us tasked with evaluating how well our individual organizations did in creating ecosystems supportive of innovation, and then thinking together how we might all nurture an even more positive environment. At my table were watchmakers, educators, investors, consultants, university administrators, entrepreneurs. And yet there were surprising similarities in the challenges we faced. 

One interesting trend emerged from those of us in the group who work in the citizen sector: Our culture of innovation is often strong, but the resources and infrastructure to enable the regular testing and developing of new ideas, new approaches, new systems, etc. is often lacking. In other words, we work in collaborative, trusting environments, but we often lack the money and time and talent to put innovation to work. Why is this the case? Well, for one, it’s no secret how difficult it is to raise unrestricted funding in our sector, and that’s exactly the kind of funding we need to creatively build and expand beyond our programmatic walls. Foundations and even entrepreneur philanthropists who might be perfectly willing to take risks with their investment capital are often more conservative when it comes to supporting new ideas, R&D, talent development, and more within civil society. And yet such funding is essential if our sector is to remain nimble and efficient and relevant. So here’s hoping we all come to this collective recognition and bolster the infrastructure of innovation within civil society to complement its strong culture.  

In the end, there was a lot of optimism about the promise of the new innovation economy, much of it warranted given the obvious improvements to the old model. I would have liked a bit more acknowledgment of the big structural barriers in society that inhibit full participation in this economy, however, or that still funnel the vast majority of its wealth to a select few. We can do better, and we have to do better, but that starts with facing where we are falling short. I have no doubt that when we do, given the talent and passion of the people at this conference and beyond, we can take things to an even higher level.  

This article was originally published on February 19, 2015
Related TopicsBusiness & Social Enterprise, Business, Fundraising, Social investment, Every Child Practicing Empathy

Michael Zakaras
Michael Zakaras was part of the Ashoka US Venture and Fellowship team.

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