Innovation: What Can It Do for Your Community?

By  Linda D Fischer

From the start, Exploring Innovation: A Conference on Community Development was meant to be different from the ordinary conference. With "Innovation in Changing Times" as its theme this year, the goal of the biennial event was to illustrate the benefits of creative thinking during challenging circumstances. Not only would the content focus on innovation, but the structure of the conference itself would be innovative.

The event drew participants from across the country, many of them high-level leaders with best practices and innovative policies to share. Community developers would leave with practical ideas they could use to make a real difference for the people they serve. This article is a brief overview of several highlights. (For more on the conference structure, see story.)

Innovation Toolbox

How does one create a culture of innovation within an organization? Kathie Thomas brought an "innovation toolbox" to illustrate one way. As director of innovation for Fleishman-Hillard, a communications firm in St. Louis, Thomas and her group help the firm and many of its corporate clients maintain an innovative atmosphere.

Innovation is defined as people working together to develop and implement new ideas that create value, Thomas said. The key elements are collaboration, ideation, implementation and value creation. Innovative thinking alone is not enough. If, in the end, creative ideas are never implemented and never create value, what good are they? Thomas asked.

Among the tools Fleishman uses are the firm's P.O.I.N.T.S. and Innovation Styles models. Once an organization decides something has to change, P.O.I.N.T.S. takes them through a six-step, problem-solving process that helps the team develop the best solutions quickly and effectively. Innovation Styles is an online assessment that team members take to determine which of nine innovation styles they prefer.

The Innovation Café

One important purpose of the conference was to bring people in the community development industry together, not only to hear from experts in the field, but also to network with each other. What better place to do that than in a café?

The Innovation Café consisted of an online meeting place and a real, physical café where conference-goers could find resources, refreshments and conversation. The online component was live on the Internet before and during the conference and offered participants a chance to propose and ponder ideas. The virtual café remains open at There, one can find discussions about questions such as "How do I encourage others to implement innovation?" and "How can one work in an environment where innovation is not promoted?" The intent is for there to be an ongoing dialogue on community development.

Policy Implications

Three experts in community development were on hand to lead an interactive session on how policy affects innovation in community development. Mark Pinsky of Opportunity Finance Network, Ray Boshara of New America Foundation and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution heard some of the following comments:

Unwinding current fiscal and economic issues is most important, as well as putting certainty back into expected markets. There is a need to organize and implement a true community development process. How can we change the structure of the system that diverts money to community development issues?

To read more comments, go to, and click on the Innovation Café and "Thursday Plenary—Table Talk."

The 10,000-Hour Challenge

One opportunity presented to attendees deserves special attention.

After hearing about research that shows it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any field, many conference attendees accepted a spontaneous challenge to collectively contribute 10,000 hours of innovation to community development. The challenge is now a work in progress, with the St. Louis Fed leading the effort.

More information will be coming soon to the conference web site.

Arts and the Community

The role of the arts in community development literally took center stage when performers presented a sampling of the folk-life play of Georgia, Swamp Gravy. The play is a perfect example of a cultural heritage arts program that has revitalized a town. (See story.)

An arts program that is making a difference in a tough urban neighborhood of Pittsburgh, The Manchester Craftsmen's Guild Youth Program, and the inspiring story told by its founder, Bill Strickland, rounded out the conference. Through the guild, Strickland has helped countless youth achieve success in their lives. He hopes to persuade 200 cities around the world to replicate his arts, education and job-training program. To find out more, go to

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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