New way to foster innovation

A worker upgrades a Durham building. The city is trying to reinvent itself after economic collapse.
A worker upgrades a Durham building. The city is trying to reinvent itself after economic collapse.

North Carolina’s future depends on how well we adapt and respond to a rapidly changing world.

And that means preparing next-generation entrepreneurial leaders and communities for what the military calls a “VUCA” world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

In this preparation, however, we shouldn’t go it alone. We should be looking far beyond our boundaries at best practices for developing the kind of change-makers we need and finding like-minded communities we can collaborate with.

That’s the purpose of a new, national, multi-city learning collaborative called Forward Cities (which Christopher helped start). Its goal is to accelerate entrepreneurial activity and networks, particularly for minority-owned businesses in priority neighborhoods in Durham, Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland, while also accelerating learning and collaboration among the four cities.

Each of these cities is in the process of reinventing itself as a dynamic, high-growth entrepreneurial hub in the wake of economic collapse. It is electric to witness this transformation as one wanders through high-tech incubators, emerging food hubs, and popular downtown lofts.

At the same time, each city is also trying to figure out how these boom times can benefit parts of the city at risk of getting left behind – specifically under-developed commercial corridors in poorer communities of color. In New Orleans, for instance, 60 percent of the city is African-American while only 2 percent of the business receipts are generated by African-American owned businesses.

In joining Forward Cities, each city has committed to addressing this challenge collectively. Within each community, an inclusive Innovation Council has been formed of community, business, policy and university leaders. Each council will focus on as many as three neighborhoods to support the growth of more locally and minority-owned businesses. The councils are working with the Urban Institute and local data partners to map current conditions and track progress against a commonly agreed set of outcomes.

Building on this multi-city learning collaborative model and following the Emerging Issues Forum, Innovation Reconstructed, the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State is partnering with Forward Impact (which Christopher runs), the UNC system, Duke University, UNC-TV, RTI and others to launch Innovate North Carolina – an effort to bring up to five cities from across the state together to accelerate place-based innovation and create opportunities for best practice sharing and collaboration.

Accelerating innovation in our communities is hard, yet absolutely critical, work. For North Carolina to prosper, we need to foster strong connections across state lines and also within our borders.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact and a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Stephen Martin is a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at