Quality education paves the way for innovation, prosperity

February 28, 2013 

There’s much talk these days about innovation and entrepreneurship driving the “new economy.” Washington’s new governor, Jay Inslee, on his first day in office, said that Washington is “poised to develop the next wave of innovations that will change the world.”

I agree and strongly believe that in order to unlock innovation in the private sector, we must foster a renewed partnership between legislative leaders and business entrepreneurs.

Together, we need to pave the way for the entrepreneurs of tomorrow through an improved educational pathway – because as we all know, education is where innovation is born. Our environmental, social and economic futures depend on the education, support and development of tomorrow’s Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs.

Our appetite for innovation has long been insatiable, and in the past 50 years we have seen unprecedented leaps in innovation and creativity.

But how many companies are truly innovative? Try to name three companies that have developed breakthrough products or services recently.

The innovations are out there, but they are happening at a micro-level in response to our changing climate, changing social conditions and changing economies. The innovations of tomorrow are going to be much more incremental and focused on breaking the unsustainable nature of our old model: extract, create, use and dispose.

The internal (and global) cost savings of this type of innovation drives an organization’s success in a resource-constrained world.

We’ve seen this play out through a few interesting local examples:

 • Local Roundtable Pizza franchisees Lance and Karrie Hungerford, after contributing extensively to their community through their restaurants, created a technology to connect businesses with community agencies and ultimately to their constituencies. GIVINGtrax is a web-based technology that is connecting people with good corporate citizens in their communities.

 • Coinstar of Bellevue, after changing the way we deal with our change, has now altered the way we receive our home entertainment. We used to walk into a 6,000-square-foot retail space that was air-conditioned, lighted and staffed to rent our VHS tapes. We now order our DVDs on our phones and pick them up from a box outside our grocery stores.

 • A small firm called Hydrovolts in Seattle developed a product that converts moving water to energy. The innovation takes an old idea (hydroelectric power) to a micro-scale and generates electricity in remote drainage ditches, waterfalls or other places where water is moving. This new (green) power source is driven by energy that was previously untapped.

Each of these innovations occurred because of a new mindset of social responsibility, citizenship and sustainability that is becoming an essential element of successful business – not just to attract new customers, but to drive innovative and creative thinking.

To some degree, the innovations of the past have helped set us on a path of unsustainable global conditions. Environmentally, socially and economically, we need to make changes that will lead to a more sustainable world.

We also need to improve the quality of education and access to higher education in order to tap into the creativity and innovation of a new generation. It is the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of private enterprise that has the most opportunity to make a positive impact.

The innovations of today will ensure a better world for tomorrow’s children.

Joe Lawless is the executive director of the University of Washington Tacoma’s Milgard School of Business Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility. A UWT-sponsored conference on sustainable business practices will be held March 6 at the Medenbauyer Center in Bellevue.

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