San Diego: Innovation Rainforest by the Beach

by Joe Sterling

In a recent interview with Jacques Chirazi, City of San Diego, Economic Development Department, I learned about a City government acting as a potent force for innovation and entrepreneurism. Municipal governments are key stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem that thrives in the greater San Diego region. Chirazi and I talked about how many elements of our Rainforest Scorecard were being well expressed in municipal programs there. Here are some highlights of our conversation, and some of the Rainforest Scorecard elements that the City of San Diego is exemplifying.

First, a momentary sidetrack. Chirazi and I compared notes about how much has changed since the mid-1990’s. In those days, I was a City of San Diego organization development staff consultant along with my Rainforest Strategies associate, Jeff Vanderwielen. We served all the departments of the City of San Diego with a range of culture, strategy, and leadership programming. I lived in San Diego County for almost 30 years before returning to the Pacific Northwest. With the perspective of distance, it was great to learn from Jacques just how much innovation ecosystem progress is being made in San Diego. During our visit, we touched on almost all of the attributes we assess in the Rainforest Scorecard.

Download a free copy of "The Rainforest Scorecard: A Practical Guide for Growing Innovation Potential" and follow along. 

Leadership: During the decade that Jacques has been at the City of San Diego, the orientation of leadership toward innovation has evolved. While serving the public has always been a core ethos inside the City, the meaning of “service orientation” has broadened in interesting ways. Economic Development strategy in the 90’ and 00’s was mostly focused on San Diego’s major industry clusters like tourism, biotech, and defense/aerospace - the latter being the 800-pound gorilla in the regional economy. As those industry clusters matured in modern terms, and creativity and innovation have become the leading indicators of future economic strength, the City’s service orientation has shifted to include support to innovators and entrepreneurs.    

In 2004, the City of San Diego made a significant structural shift in leadership structure when voters approved the transition to a “strong mayor” form of government. This was a pivotal moment because it enabled a more aggressive agenda to transform how the City operates. That was boosted in 2015 with significant change in leadership, one intent on driving modernization. It is the nature of governments to focus on cost, command, and control, predictability, and consistency of services. This makes them nearly all reluctant to experiment with and embrace new technology. With structural changes giving San Diego's municipal leadership more flexibility and speed in decision-making, the potential to make the city inviting to entrepreneurs and innovators is now greatly enhanced.

Frameworks: Many innovation frameworks are in use at the intersection of the City of San Diego and its residents. Chirazi described how “human-centered design” is starting to gain traction. The International Organization for Standardization describes human-centered design as “an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, usability knowledge, and techniques. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.” ISO 9241-210:2010(E) Applying this framework to making the City government and its services more accessible and user-friendly to innovators and entrepreneurs bodes very well for the future of the innovation ecosystem in the San Diego region.

Policy: Examples of policy decisions that support innovation and entrepreneurism (emanating from the strong-mayor structure) have included an “Open Data” policy. Creation of The City of San Diego Open Data Portal makes pubic data available for innovators, and specifically invites all comers to explore the data, find ways to use it for the good of the community, and to create new data-driven enterprises.

Resources: A powerful resource for innovators and entrepreneurs that Chirazi and colleagues in the City constructed is the map and catalogue of San Diego's Startup Ecosystem. According to the City's website, it “features many established, forward-thinking incubators, accelerators and coworking spaces… places where local entrepreneurs can surround themselves with like-minded San Diegans... and save money on leasing an entire office. Land a quirky workspace downtown, a bench in a state-of-the-art laboratory, or even an office inside a climbing gym. Discover where startups can apply to programs that offer mentorship, business development and access to VCs and angel investors.” Innovation enabling resources like this reflect leadership that appreciates what’s needed and materially supports entrepreneurism and innovation.

Infrastructure: Generally, anything that increases trust accelerates the velocity of transactions in a region – a high degree of trust across a culture is a powerful enabler of innovation and greater economic activity. The City of San Diego’s new Open Counter online platform for permits of various types is making it easier and faster to get permits, start new enterprises and do other business with the City. Back in the day, those who knew City staff and processes at "the counter” in each department could transact easily, there was rapport and trust in the system that those in the know could leverage. However, if you didn’t already know those City staff and processes, learning to do business inside departments required mounting a very steep learning curve. That barrier to entry appears to be coming down by virtue of turning increasingly more of the “counter” personality and bureaucracy-driven experience into a standardized, computerized, application driven processes. The learning curve is coming down, while the standardization is going up – all of which is increasing trust and ease in the system.

Activities & Engagement: There are innovation activities and engagements that take advantage of the conditions created by the leadership, policies, infrastructure, frameworks and so on. For example, the County of San Diego sponsored Big Data Hackathon, and the City of San Diego sponsored Smart Cities Hackathon. These are important not only for what they can do to solve regional problems and help local innovators build new enterprises, but for what they can teach other jurisdictions.

Role Models: There are too many innovation role models to cite in a short article, so many exemplars can be found in the San Diego region. Take a look at the winners of the hackathons noted above for starters, but don't forget about the unsung heroes laboring in local government agencies – those stalwart few who push the innovation stone up the municipal hill every day – and keep your eye on Jacques Chirazi.

Frontiers & Results: During our visit, Chirazi cited one of the holy grails of improving trust, speed and efficiency in municipal settings: procurement. Applying all of San Diego’s strengths to a human-centric redesign of government procurement is an area that has only begun to be addressed.

Where has this effort taken the southwestern most corner of the country? The City’s website sums it up: “San Diego is the No. 1 place to launch a business, according to a 2014 Forbes ranking. With our entrepreneurial spirit, our inventive and innovative culture and our educational and research resources, San Diego fosters a strong community where people with good ideas can start businesses, collaborate, succeed -- and even change the world. San Diego is life-changing.”   

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