How To Create Innovation Culture? Halifax Tries Something BoldPosted: January 5, 2015
By Victor Hwang, CEO & Co-Founder of T2 Venture Creation, from Forbes
Economic destiny is often shaped by luck. For example, the region of Halifax has benefited from great luck over the centuries. It sits at a fortunate position near the far eastern edge of North America, where it has served as a valuable shipping link between Europe and the Americas. But luck cannot be a long-term strategy. This is especially true today, when value is increasingly exchanged across data lines instead of shipping lanes. So how does a place like Halifax adapt in the modern economy?
Halifax is trying something new and brave. My firm has advised leaders at the Greater Halifax Partnership over the past year. They are at the front of an exciting movement, as the community starts to take control of its economic destiny by spurring greater innovation and entrepreneurship. And they are not relying solely on tools of the past, like tax incentives and infrastructure building. Instead, they are attempting to reconstruct the fabric of the society itself… by rewriting Halifax’s social contract.
This is an ambitious idea. One might even say that it’s boldly going where no region has gone before. To understand why it makes sense, though, it helps to look at history.
Halifax, Nova Scotia’s first city, is one of the great ports on the Atlantic seaboard. Titanic survivors were famously rescued by a ship from Halifax. The maritime period known as the Golden Age of Sail (roughly 1820-1920) corresponded to the greatest economic growth in Halifax’s history. As the capital of the Maritimes, Halifax was uniquely positioned as a meeting point between North America and Europe, where intercontinental trade was facilitated and ships were built for the 20th century’s great wars. The city thrived because of a lucky confluence of technological discoveries, macro-political trends, and geographical determinism.
Can Halifax sail to a new Golden Age based on innovation and entrepreneurial culture?
But the great wars are long over. Technologies enable merchant vessels to make longer treks, no longer requiring so many of them to stop in Halifax on the way. And the Internet has enabled the fast, cheap movement of valuable intangibles. Data packets don’t need to make rest stops.
The Golden Ages of the modern economy are different from those of the past. Silicon Valley is the usual example. In the past, economies were built on battles over scarce resources. Being a transportation hub was a great way to own a big share of the world’s commerce. Today, however, economies are built on innovation, which is arguably limitless in its potential. And innovation depends on culture, which I’ve written a lot about. Innovation thrives in ecosystems based on certain cultural norms, such as openness to strangers, diversity in talents and insights, empathy with outsiders, collaborative risk-taking, and paying it forward.
But many citizens of Halifax feel that the traditional culture of Halifax is not conducive for innovation. (By the way, Halifax citizens are called Haligonians, which definitely ranks among the coolest demonyms in the galaxy.) Haligonian leaders are concerned that too many of its people tend to shy away from strangers, stick to their own, and avoid unnecessary risk.
During my visit there last year, for instance, I met a man who was born in Eastern Europe but had lived in Halifax since he was a teenager. He confessed to me that he had never felt welcome in Halifax, despite having lived there for many years. He had always wanted to start his own company, but he felt that local culture stifled his ambitions. He couldn’t meet the right people; he couldn’t open the right doors. Although he lived in Halifax for most of his life, some less open-minded Haligonians still referred to him as a “Come From Away”—their term for people who are not native-born.
It’s stories like this that have spurred Halifax’s leaders into action. They have specifically targeted culture change as an economic strategy. Kevin McIntyre of the Greater Halifax Partnership sees the enemy as deeply-rooted pessimism, and a “zero-sum culture” that encourages competition rather than cooperation. This manifests itself in rivalry between metropolitan Halifax and the surrounding rural areas. Particularly disturbing is the mass out-migration of new university graduates avoiding high local unemployment. And it doesn’t help that local businesses tend to require several years’ experience even for entry-level positions.
By focusing on culture, Halifax is going straight to core of its economic issues. Rebooting culture is the equivalent of pushing control-alt-delete on the human operating system of a community. To do this, however, means rewriting its social contract. Social contracts are the fractal equation that determines, among other things, whether a region’s economic ecosystem is based on innovation (creating the new) versus production (optimizing the old).
Halifax has many key elements in place, according to McIntyre. Leaders and the public are acknowledging its core problems. The skilled talent exists for innovation. There is a strong student/academic population to provide fresh blood. There is a vibrant art scene that bursts with creative ideas. And a new $35-$40 billion shipbuilding contract has injected renewed energy and sense of purpose.
But all these free-floating elements need to be culturally synthesized. Think about a great orchestra. A musical group requires more than just a bunch of skilled individuals—it takes a common structure for a talented group to express itself in a way greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true for all human teams. People need common rules of engagement between each other, so that they can thrive collectively with minimal friction. Social contracts are the equivalent of musical notes, tempos, and chord progressions in human economic life.
What does Halifax’s social contract look like? The Greater Halifax Partnership came up with a pledge. They originally called it the Halifax Pledge, but eventually they changed it to “The Bold Promise” in order to include the surrounding areas and the entire Maritimes region. It reads:
By taking the Bold Promise, I commit to be part of a movement of people who believe in a better Halifax; one that is open to new people, new ideas and a new economy. A bright future for Halifax starts with me.
- Be Positive
- Challenge Pessimism
- Trust And Be Trusted
- Pay It Forward
- Celebrate Success
Why makes it bold? It challenges old paradigms—that business is always a cutthroat enterprise, that you shouldn’t trust strangers, that risk is to be avoided. As McIntyre says, they want people to “be bold enough to be open and listen, to experiment together, to share ideas and let others make them better, have conversations with people you wouldn’t normally have conversations with. Bold is all-around a state of mind.”
The Greater Halifax Partnership hopes to get 100,000 people to sign it—or roughly one-third of the city’s population. (I signed it, too, as you can see!) They’ve already gotten several thousand so far, and that’s a fantastic start.
Even a slight shift in the thinking of a few thousand people can have broad implications in a community. McIntyre realizes that, and it’s something he’s taken to heart. He says, “You have to walk the walk. And if you’re saying the ecosystem and the community have to live within the bold promise, then you have to do it yourself. Every now and then, I hold a mirror up and ask myself if I’m living the bold promise. It’s a personal challenge and a city challenge.”
Social contracts are for communities, but each individual still has to make it their own. With enough people taking the Bold Promise to heart, perhaps we’ll see the dawn of a new Golden Age for Halifax.
Victor W. Hwang is an entrepreneur, investor, and writer in Silicon Valley. He is Executive Director of Global Innovation Summit + Week, a gathering for builders of the new economy in over 50 countries on February 15-21, 2015.