Making Innovista work going forward

Don Herriott speaks about Innovista to Columbia Rotary Club recently.

Had breakfast this morning with Don Herriott, USC’s new honcho for Innovista – a guy with a tough job cut out for him.

Innovista has always been a huge challenge. So many things have to go right for it to work – not specific things, not necessarily things you can plan in advance. So much of what will make Innovista work will involve players yet unknown, engaged in activities yet unenvisioned. And those who seek to make it happen, to encourage this process along, have to keep the vision of what Innovista can be in front of so many, fostering and growing the idea.

Under the best of circumstances, you have to overcome a lot. You have to sell the idea of Columbia as a place to live and work to established researchers, to students, to investors, to entrepreneurs, to developers, to so many, so that you can draw in the people who will be at the core of the process – while at the same time keeping all the local incumbent players (business, political, civic) energized and encouraged to keep doing their part to keep the whole thing moving in the right direction.

That’s much tougher to do when there are setbacks, such as the mess that has ensued from entanglements with problematic partners, and buildings that have become a focal point to the extent that many people erroneously think those buildings ARE Innovista.

It’s made far harder when the political leader with the state’s bulliest pulpit is absolutely opposed to what you are doing, and wants you to fail. And when he is supported by a well-funded chorus of naysayers. And make no mistake: Mark Sanford and the S.C. Policy Council, to name but one of his cheerleaders, don’t merely object to the decisions that have been made in the name of the Innovista. Their problem isn’t the overemphasis on hydrogen, or the investment in “spec” buildings. They are opposed to the VERY IDEA of the university and local and state government being engaged in trying to build the local and state economy. No matter what was done in the name of Innovista, they would be against it – especially if it looked as though it might succeed.

The thing I like about what Don Herriott’s trying to do is get everyone refocused on what Innovista has been from the start. It’s not a building or set of buildings, it’s not a specific grid of city blocks, it’s not just hydrogen (much less the much-derided, but much hyped, electric cars). It’s about sparking and sustaining a dynamic that leads to the creation of high-paying, new-economy jobs so that Columbia and South Carolina – instead of being behind every curve – will actually be well-positioned in the “New Normal” economy of the 21st century.

It’s a movement, a concept, a vision. Like the Vista before it, a lot of people will have to believe in it, and invest in it in many ways over a course of years and decades, for it to achieve its potential. And like the Vista, it’s a goal that neither government nor the private sector can make happen alone.

Don’s a little frustrated that when he has good news to tell – such as the fact that some high-tech companies associated with Innovista are moving into the Wilbur Smith building – it gets played like this: “A major tenant planned for USC’s struggling research campus, Innovista, is instead moving into a downtown Columbia office tower several blocks away.” That lede was based on the fact that these companies had planned to be in an Innovista building that didn’t get built as planned. So instead of just withering away or going to another city, another state, they’re locating as close as they can so that they can still be a part of the Innovista movement – which should be great news. But it didn’t play that way. It played as a “coup” for Matt Kennell’s City Center Partnership, and a loss for Innovista – as though they were in competition, instead of dependent on each others’ success.

Yes, as Innovista moves forward and succeeds, the vacuum of that territory between Assembly Street and the river will naturally fill with Innovista-related people, structures and activity. That gaping void of pure potential in the heart of an urban center is one of the great advantages Innovista will have over other research centers around the country. As Mr. Herriott says, “Silicon Valley doesn’t have a street where it begins and ends.” The idea that the Wilbur Smith building, two blocks from the heart of the USC campus one way and three from the Vista proper in the other, is not a part of this movement, this dynamic that he is trying to foster, is absurd.

But a lot of people don’t understand that. And that’s bad because local folks need to understand when Innovista is moving forward in order for it to be able to continue moving forward.

For that reason, one big challenge Don Herriott doesn’t really need – that of renewing and maintaining the local buy-in that Innovista enjoyed when the concept was first unveiled – is as big as any other.

I know a lot of you out there aren’t cheering for him to succeed. But I am. And I hope at some point you will too. Because the stakes for Columbia are enormous, and making Innovista work is an all-hands-on-deck job for this community.

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