How to kill innovation with apathy

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'The American Public Transportation Association recently awarded Translink (Vancouver's Transit Authority) Gold Level status for its achievements in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting energy use, slashing air pollution and increasing ridership.'

This press release seemed like pretty big news to me. But when I asked Translink's Director of Corporate Sustainability, Trish Webb, where the achievement had been covered, I was aghast to hear it had gone virtually unnoticed.

Unnoticed, in Vancouver - the Green Capital? The Sustainability Olympic City? The city voted 'World's Most Livable' in 2010 by The Economist (and second most livable in 2011), due in large part to its green cred?

It seemed like this achievement should make front page local news. Or at least warrant a mention on page 3.

In fact, I had expected the Translink news to be covered by the likes of Fast Company and Wired, After all, there was a realinnovationstory to be told.

But outside some industry-specific journals, the event passed like a bus in the night.

As a creative director, I saw this as the equivalent of leaving easy money on the table. Not only brand currency, but the real green that comes from being celebrated as an expert.

As someone passionate about building futureproof brands, I saw it as something far worse: a way to kill innovation with apathy.

To Be It, Declare It

Contrast this with the incredible success story of Jason Roberts. Jason took on stagnant community planning in Dallas by talking about innovations he felt should happen, then watching the media rev up the community to make those innovations real.

In a charming TED anecdote, he describes seeing the need for a streetcar line in his neighborhood, Oak Cliff.

His solution was to create a website for the 'Oak Cliff Transit Authority' to make this innovation 'real' for people. When he created the website, the OCTA had only one member - Roberts.

Much to his surprise (Roberts is an art activist, not a city planner) his streetcar line made mainstream news within a week. What started as a one man communication effort snowballed into a project galvanizing the passion of engineers, streetcar buffs, the Chamber of Commerce and community supporters.

And to every cynic's amazement, Oak Cliff won a $28 million grant to build its streetcar line.

Imagine if Translink had Jason Roberts on staff. Chances are, its gold sustainability award would have been levered into the national spotlight, and may well have become a rampart to push through countless other innovations. The people responsible might have felt so spurred by their success that they went on to create greater and greater work.

Innovation needs enthusiasm to survive. Apathy is the quickest killer of new ideas.

Lessons for innovators

I believe any innovator wondering how to solve a mighty riddle might take a page from Jason Roberts.

He outlines a few wonderful lessons:

  1. Imagination needs anchors - Jason mapped out an entire website describing his community's successful streetcar line - years before his group won a grant to build the line. By helping people visualize success, he made it easier for others to get on board.
  2. Involve the communicators right away - Jason knew his movement needed momentum. He involved the Chamber of Commerce, business groups, activist groups, anyone who could spread the word. His passion became their passion, and communication became action.
  3. Be a leader - Roberts said that when his streetcar movement got rolling, people quickly asked him what to do next. He had never led any movement, but felt the need to jump into the breach. Innovation needs a face. If others aren't making the publicity and passion happen to drive your idea forward, you need to take the reins and become the face of inspiration. Ideas, like children, need a parent to make them grow.

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  1. I think you are comparing apples with pears, and then criticising the banana. You tell us that Oak Cliff had no tram, and one man's effort changed that. Excellent and rightly to be admired. Now it has its tram, it needs to work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting waste, reducing air pollution and increasing ridership. Translink has its trams, and has reduced greenhouse gas emissions, cut waste, reduced air pollution and increased ridership, so it got a prize. Also excellent, but I doubt they did it for the sake of the prize. They just got on with it like Jason Roberts.

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