Back in June Michael Catsi, Director of Business Development and Communications for AIDEA, asked me if I would help plan the Innovation Track for the upcoming Accelerate: Alaska event taking place at the Loussac Library on August 29th and 30th. Helping plan the event rapidly turned into “would you be willing to give one of our keynotes?” The event’s purpose is to “build new industries from our competitive advantages”. I applaud the sentiment in the event’s materials which state “A good or bad day in Alaska should not be dependent on the price of a commodity.” There’s no doubt that we’re resource dependent economy. Scott Goldsmith, Professor Emeritus from UAA, once estimated that without oil our economy would be one-third smaller. We’d be an economy the size of Maine’s spread over territory just a bit smaller than the Louisiana Purchase. Yikes! So, let’s just start from the premise that a healthy Alaska oil industry is good for the economy and critical to the growth of the Permanent Fund, while also acknowledging that the data show that economies which are so concentrated in a single resource industry tend to be more volatile and less innovative than more diverse economies.
Why do we care about innovation in Alaska? Why do we care about innovation anywhere? Because innovation has the potential to make this economy more diverse, more stable, and richer for all of us. In the simplest of terms economies become rich through two behaviors: attracting outside money into the economy and keeping that money circulating within the economy for as long as possible. As Alaskans, we have a good handle on the first part of equation. We bring in a lot of outside money from oil production, the federal government, tourism, air transportation, and the fishing industry. Go us! And now we get to the second part of the equation-keeping that money in the economy. We’re objectively terrible at this part because so many of the goods and services that we buy in our economy originate Outside. Well-thought out and executed innovation can bring more money into the economy and keep it from leaking out. We’re unlikely to ever find another single resource that will give as much to our economy as oil has given, so we one of our next best bets is to make sure we don’t leak money like a sieve.
Now that we realize that innovation can help us stop leaking money to the outside, we can just go forth and innovate, right? Well, what are we waiting for? It’s not easy to do anything on command is it? First, let’s take the word innovation, all ten full letters of living, breathing SAT word of it. We’re probably going to be more successful at innovating if we can break it down into something a little less intimidating. “Innovate” first appeared as a word in the 1540s and the meaning was to “to renew and change or to alter established practices.” So, let’s change innovate to just simply “do things differently” with the purpose, for this blog post, of bringing more money into Alaska or keeping money here.” When we think about innovation that way, we take it from “In order to be innovative I have to invent the next iPhone” to “All I have to do to be innovative is think about how to do things differently and bring it to practice.” If we use that simple definition, we’re surrounded by innovators who are doing things just a bit differently and are doing it in a way that either attracts money to Alaska and/or keeps it here. I’m thinking about:
- The Farmers of the Mat-Su Valley, the Interior, Urban Anchorage who now provide Anchorage with year-round Farmer’s Markets where 15 years ago there was hardly a single robust summer market in the City.
- Nancy Morris-Lyons and the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing Academy who are training resident Bristol Bay youth to stand beside out-of-state guides and keep those hard-earned dollars here.
- Elissa Brown and Chris Pike who realized our need for amazing local ice cream and every craft brewer and distiller in the state who not only keep our beverage dollars here, but use local ingredients brew and distill their products.
- Joshua Jeon whose BTY Dental clinics focused on underserved markets and are now ubiquitous around Anchorage.
- The folks at Triverus in Palmer, AK. You may have never heard of them, but they’re saving the backs of U.S. Navy sailors who need to conduct Foreign Object Debris scans of carrier decks. They’re building 40 machines for the Navy.
If we’re going to expand the number of innovators here in Alaska we must demystify innovation for all, but more importantly for our youngest residents. How can we encourage a culture of innovation? To start, we should be regularly challenging ourselves by asking:
- What unfilled needs do I see here in Alaska and Outside?
- When does the money Alaskans are spending just leave the state?
- What role could I play in creating a solution which would keep or bring money here?
- What would it take to bring that solution to life?
We also need to encourage a “growth mindset” which celebrates the failures that lead us to learning. Many of us don’t innovate because it’s easier to swim in the stream of complacency than risk the perceived shame of failure. Failure is a learning moment, not a stain on our permanent record. If we’re going to grow, diversify, and strengthen Alaska’s economy in the long-run we need to grow as many innovators as we can who can recognize Alaska’s unique challenges and opportunities
Jonathan’s Takeaway: When we break down “innovation” into asking powerful open-ended questions, the true scope and potential of the opportunities in front of us are more evident. This approach, coupled with a growth mindset, can encourage more Alaskans to solve these opportunities and contribute to a more diverse and prosperous Alaskan economy.
Jonathan King is a consulting economist and Certified Professional Coach. His firm, Halcyon Consulting, is dedicated to helping clients reach their goals through accountability, integrity, and personal growth. Jonathan has 21 years of social science consulting experience including 15 years in Alaska. The comments in this blog do not necessarily represent the view of employers and clients past or present and are Jonathan’s alone. Suggested blog topics, constructive feedback, and comments are desired at firstname.lastname@example.org.