Signs of Innovation
Eugene is primed to move forward into a new and exciting type of economy as we see our shared values of innovation, creativity, and connection expand into new opportunities for our region.
Article by Kelli Matthews | Photos courtesy of the city of Eugene
The signs are everywhere. Eugene is on the move.
Cranes swing high above Franklin Boulevard erecting the Knight Campus, wrecking balls demolish the old EWEB steam plant and bulldozers and earth movers shape the new Hayward Field. These developments aren’t the only signs that big things are happening. Some others are much less visible, but with no less impact.
In conference rooms, coffee shops and sidewalks all over Eugene, a core group of people have been talking about how to create a culture of innovation — what it means, how to foster it and, importantly, how to intentionally grow Eugene in a way that innovation is the hub of what we do.
In 2014, the Brookings Institute explored the idea of “innovation districts,” a new force of economic development happening in cities large and small across North America. Around the same time, community groups and stakeholders in Eugene began to discuss what an intentional and focused effort to highlight and build on exciting work already happening might look like here.
“We began a conversation asking how we could build the connections, assets and community culture that inspire innovation,” said Eugene Chamber of Commerce CEO Brittany Quick-Warner.
The burgeoning tech scene was clearly part of the equation, but it couldn’t be the whole answer. The subsequent conversation has included public and private sector leaders, entrepreneurs and nonprofit executives.
“Innovation hubs around the country start with existing people and places,” added Dana Siebert, interim executive director of the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN). “Eugene has a strong foundation to build on.”
Why an Innovation Hub?
“We’ve long focused on traditional economic development models that ask ‘how do we recruit big business?’” said Quick-Warner. “It’s exciting to think about disrupting that model and aspire to a holistic approach that’s more inclusive.”
Proponents of the innovation hub model argue that building on the assets we currently have leads to community prosperity and creates a place people want to be.
“Energy attracts energy,” Quick-Warner adds.
Studies have shown that communities that focus on building innovation as a strategy have the unique potential to spur productive, inclusive and sustainable economic development.
“This is a priority worth pursuing,” remarked Siebert. “By creating a shared agenda with clear goals, we build opportunities for people to thrive.”
How Do We Create an Innovation Hub?
The Brookings Institute identified key components to success for regions that want to create intentional economic development through innovation and entrepreneurship. The Eugene Chamber, the University of Oregon, the City of Eugene and other key partners have looked closely at what Eugene brings to the table. Significantly, Eugene has a critical mass of the necessary economic, physical and networking assets needed.
“The city has all the right pieces,” offered Kyle Henley, vice president for communication at the University of Oregon.
Eugene is rich with economic assets — the companies, institutions and organizations that can drive and support innovation. The Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact looms large both in physical presence and community aspirations. Located on the north side of Franklin Boulevard, across from the University of Oregon’s main campus, it stands as a connection between the innovation happening on campus and the community.
“The Knight Campus can put us on the map,” Quick-Warner added. “We need an intentional, strategic approach to ensuring the community leverages this opportunity.”
But Knight Campus isn’t the only economic asset coming from the University of Oregon in the near future. A new Hayward Field opens in 2020, and it will immediately host two important track & field events — the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and the IAAF World Championships in 2021, the largest sporting event in the world that year.
“The University is excited to being a catalyst for the community and an anchor for the innovation economy in our region” added Henley. “We have two once-in-a-generation opportunities happening simultaneously, and we need to slingshot out with momentum to fuel innovation in the community for years to come.”
That inevitable momentum will thrive in the entrepreneurial ecosystem Eugene has created. RAIN provides programs, skill-building and an entrepreneurial culture to help innovators be successful.
“We have worked with founders and entrepreneurs from ideation to engagement for nearly a decade,” said RAIN’s Siebert. “But the innovation hub discussions have moved us to think more ‘big picture’, outside of the programmatic role we’ve had for nearly a decade.”
Siebert believes that “big picture” thinking encourages the conversation around innovation to be inclusive – including people and organizations that haven’t always been at the table and allows RAIN and its partners to think beyond business incubation.
“We’re talking about changing the culture in our community, applying innovator thinking and finding new ways to do everything from solving public health issues to creating new funding models,” he adds.
When there’s a concentration of public and private spaces that encourages people to meet for a meal, collaborate over a cup of coffee or work in tandem in a co-working space. It creates new ways to connect. These physical assets, literally, bring people together.
“We want to facilitate places that put people in proximity and beg them to ask the question of each other, ‘What are you up to?’ Siebert said.
Places like the downtown library, The Graduate hotel, 5th Street Public Market and the new riverfront access will knit the innovation hub together. But the smaller spaces are equally important. Moreover, to make innovation part of the fabric of our community’s culture, relationships between and among individuals, institutions and organizations are fundamental.
“We’re creating an opportunity for people to build off each other’s ideas and making space for collaboration,” said Noreen Dunnells, the United Way of Lane County CEO. “And I can tell people are ‘leaning in’ rather than resisting this opportunity.”
“Innovation requires risk,” she added. “We are building trust through intentionally diverse and inclusive conversations that bring new partners to the table.”
Taking advantage of the opportunities ahead will require trust, buy-in for a shared vision and a commitment to a culture shift.
“There’s a stickiness about this place,” Quick-Warner said. “We want to build a place that draws talent to our area and keeps them here. I believe the focus on innovation is the key.”
“We're creating an opportunity for people to build off each other's ideas and making space for collaboration” - Noreen Dunnells, CEO of United Way of Lane County.
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