Every now and then an idea comes along that seems a little wacky but ends up helping Northeast Ohio. For example, an organization that tracks down former Clevelanders and hits them up for investments back home. Until recently, civic entrepreneurs--people who come up with those ideas--had to figure out on their own what it would take to get them off the ground. But this week, the Cleveland Foundation is kicking off a new venture to smooth the way for new ideas. As part of Making Change: Reinventing our Economy, ideastream's Shula Neuman reports.
The Civic Innovation Lab is not a real laboratory. There are no steaming beakers or test tubes with bubbly blue fluid. It's a concept, says lab director Jennifer Thomas to encourage brainstorming and try to generate strategies for getting new economic development projects to work.
JENNIFER THOMAS: So, yes it's a lab in terms of possibly experimenting... and hoping to come out with a positive result.
The Cleveland Foundation created the lab so that people who have ideas for projects that would boost Northeast Ohio's economy will have help in making the idea real. Thomas says anyone can submit a proposal, which a 15-member panel of experienced business big wigs will evaluate. The panel then selects a few ideas that they're willing to back -- using their connections and resources to help get the project off the ground. Thomas says the idea of civic entrepreneurship has many parallels with starting a business-especially when it comes to accepting that things don't always work out.
JT: One of the goals of the lab is to fail often and fail early. It's going to be the case that some of these ideas will not make it. But if we feel strongly that an idea has some legs, we're going to invest some time into it and possibly money.
The Foundation is putting two-hundred-thousand dollars into the project, to be distributed in thirty thousand dollar chunks. But failure isn't something that Cleveland takes to easily. What people want to see is success... such as the healthy return on the investment Chris Carmody had when he founded the Greater Cleveland Film Commission. In its first year, the commission ended up bringing in more than four times its investment - which pleased the organization's funders such as the Gund Foundation. Carmody says, after that first year selling the concept of a film commission became that much easier. Still, Carmody says, it would have been nice to have had a Civic Innovation Lab around. Carmody says it would have helped expedite his vision --even though he was at an advantage when he started out since he had connections in town.
CHRIS CARMODY: People who have good ideas--young, energetic people who don't have that kind of access--should not be hampered because of that. We should be looking for those people and cultivating them. I think the lab's idea to go out and find these people who don't necessarily have that kind of background and then get them started and I think that's very important.
And that endorsement comes from a self-described cynic. Despite general optimism for the lab, Suzanne Morse, executive director of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change says the Lab could fail if it lacks broad based community support and partnership with like-minded organizations. Morse says a little patience helps too.
SUZANNE MORSE: Oftentimes in the foundation world we want sure fire things. We want to know it's going to work... and that's often not how innovation and invention works.
But as Saddhu Johnston attests, Cleveland's risk-averse community can be difficult to sway. That was his experience starting the Cleveland Green Building Coalition. It took four years before Johnston felt he and the Green Building Coalition were affecting change and helping the region... but, he says, four years was too long.
SADDHU JOHNSTON: It doesn't take long to realize that Cleveland is the kind of town that you get places when you know people. And that I think is one of the biggest challenges of being a new person with great ideas in this town is that it's very hard to get connected. And until people have either read a newspaper article about you or have heard about you, they're not going to really embrace your ideas and embrace what you're about.
However, Johnston is optimistic about the potential of the Civic Innovation Lab. The thing is, Johnston-now considered one of Cleveland's most promising young leaders-is leaving to take a job with the city of Chicago. His departure has many people wringing their hands over Cleveland's endemic brain drain. But Johnston says that's misdirected anxiety.
SJ: The fact that there aren't as many people competing for these opportunities mean that there are great opportunities for the young people that do come here. We need to really push that as one of our strengths and build on it so that we are attracting young people from all across the country so that they want to come to Cleveland because they know they can do things here they couldn't do anywhere else.
Johnston says the Civic Innovation Lab could be one way to turn Cleveland into an incubator for civic entrepreneurs... so that whether these future leaders stick around or leave for new opportunities, Northeast Ohio will still benefit from their having passed through.
In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3s
The Civic Innovation Lab is accepting applications as of October 1, 2003. For a link to the lab's web site-and other information about civic entrepreneurship-go to the Making Change portion of our web site, www.wcpn.org. Making Change is produced in partnership with the Center for Regional Economic issues at the Weatherhead School of Management – the dynamic, innovative business school at Case Western Reserve University.