In today's post, I'd like to share some thoughts about a panel that I was thrilled to moderate at the Social Innovation Summit in Chicago called “Urban Transformation: Rethinking Cities as an Engine for Growth & Development.”
Summit organizers called it a “global convening of black swans and wayward thinkers,” and I was proud to be among them. Joining me on the panel were Joe Lotuff, co-founder of Providence-based Lotuff Leather, and Peter Hirshberg, an innovation advisor and author of Maker City: A Practical Guide to Reinventing Our Cities. Our discussion focused on how manufacturers and makers today are driving prosperity in cities by helping them evolve into social innovation hubs.
In Rhode Island, this connection is readily apparent: As we’ve doubled our number of social enterprises in the last year, our economic outlook has greatly improved. But our state isn’t new to social innovation. At the turn of the century, Providence was the most prosperous city in America. Our depth of expertise in manufacturing even sparked the Industrial Revolution. Those who ran the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce—one of the oldest chambers in America—were the industrialists of their time, but over the course of a couple decades, Providence lost its footing when the textile and jewelry industries left. Through the lens of the Chamber’s long history, we’ve been able to see how manufacturing can change a city. In the process of finding our way back to prosperity, we have also made a return to our city’s focus on innovation.
This is thanks to initiatives like the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, a network of 400-plus social enterprises and the 300-plus business and community leaders who support them. All of the state’s 11 colleges and universities have partnered with the Greenhouse, and nine now have social enterprise programs in place so that far more young people in our state are thinking about launching these ventures and being connected to social enterprise. The Greenhouse has launched a statewide campaign with those of us at the Commerce. Called Best for Rhode Island, it encourages business to do even more good in the state.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently named Rhode Island the second-best state in America for innovation and entrepreneurship. Our state earned this distinction largely by rethinking the way local businesses, schools and institutions collaborate with the state and with one another. To ensure success in Rhode Island, this has been a key focus for our governor, Gina Raimondo. The incentives and other opportunities within her economic toolbox are keeping Providence’s rock-star talent in-state while attracting smart minds from outside. They’re helping match small companies with universities to conduct research and development, and allowing industry clusters to collaborate and grow together. The recently launched Innovation Campus competition will also help turn our universities’ research capacity and the commercialization of that research into new products, businesses and jobs.
What I loved about this summit is that it wasn’t about bringing people together to talk about the next big idea, but it was about bringing together those people who are ready to build the next big idea. That’s something those of us in Providence have always excelled at.