Nashville and Its Future of Innovation

How do you intentionally plan for something that is usually serendipitous? Innovation, or the genesis and execution of novel solutions to a problem, as well as creativity more broadly, often comes about via mysterious means. Even so, few innovators ever leave it at that. Circumstances can be tweaked, environments can be shaped, and questions can be asked that ultimately yield smarter, targeted, and more innovative answers than previously conceived.

So what does it take to tweak and shape circumstances and environments? To find out, we, the Design Thinking Nashville group, have teamed up with the Nashville Innovation Project to see how we might foster more innovation in our growing city. Because Nashville is currently undergoing a population boom—cranes dominating the skyline, new businesses launching daily, and new residents bringing new ideas into the melting pot—the time is ripe for planning with intentionality. The NIP hosted multiple focus groups with business owners, developers, and policymakers, gathering experiences and opinions about what kinds of resources might make Nashville an innovation hot spot. With this feedback, we plan to apply Design Thinking methodology to address these questions with human-centered approaches and fast prototyping strategies.

To kick off the Design Thinking component of the project, we introduced the challenge to our monthly Caffy Hour meet-up group last Thursday morning. We tackled several of what we call “How might we…” questions in groups and in a (mere) hour came up with two prototypes that got me excited about the possibilities awaiting Nashville. The discussions yielded some important observations which I hope will encourage your own curiosity about what it takes to make craft an environment primed for innovative ideas.

  1. Innovation requires separation from the ordinary.
    I remember once when working for a non-profit I was tasked with designing the organization’s Christmas card. I struggled for hours coming up with multiple designs, all of which got rejected. When I finally detached myself from the project and started throwing some darts at a dart board, the winning idea miraculously manifested itself in my head. This instance exemplifies the fascinating paradox of creativity and psychology wherein we often come up with the best ideas while doing something completely out of the realm of the work for which we need those ideas. This is why creativity experts often suggest going for walks, taking showers, playing games, having lunch with people outside of your field, etc. Changing environments, pace, and company can give us what Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative, calls fresh stimuli, with which our brain can draw new connections. In other words, no new stimuli means no new ideas.

    Therefore, when designing to encourage innovation, the Caffy Hour conversations yielded the excellent point that whatever form the innovation resources took they had to present newcomers with fresh stimuli. Ideas included creating easily accessible public spaces where Artists in Residence could do demonstrations or innovators could display exhibits that challenge the passerby to strike up a conversation. We also envisioned indoor/outdoor public spaces offering free wifi and access to food and coffee where people could work, talk, and introduce their brains to new ideas.

  2. Innovation is fostered through cross-pollination and feedback.
    Both the focus groups and the Caffy hour group honed in on this point. In addition to removing ourselves from our physical and mental sphere and challenging our brain with new stimuli, innovative ideas can come from engaging in conversations with people who can help solve each others’ challenges, whether they are within the same industry, from a completely different industry, or hailing from an entirely different culture. Creating an environment that encourages conversation, mentorship, and feedback is paramount to designing for innovation. This raises an obvious difficulty however: you can’t force people to talk to each other. Michaela Powell, who manages daily operations at the Skillery, a co-working space in Germantown, assures us you can only do so much hand-holding during networking sessions. Because of this, conversations with strangers need to be incentivized. Fortunately, the Caffy Hour teams had some good ideas, including offering access to wifi, coffee, food, pay-it-forward mentorships, accelerator programs, association-wide memberships to Nashville’s co-working spaces, competitions and events, pop-exhibits in public spaces, online Nashville-centric social media networks, among many other ideas. We also played with the idea of creating public work stations with plaques above them, and users were welcome as long as they labeled their name card with what they were working on and be open for conversation or inquiry.
  3. Accessibility to resources and teammates is key. 
    Another common theme that arose from the many conversations had so far was the issue of affordability and accessibility. Co-working memberships are nice, but they only meet the needs of certain people and the budgets of even fewer. So how might we share resources, create environments for idea generation, and connect people across the city in ways that are accessible and affordable? The Caffy Hour groups looked at the idea of solving some of these issues by using public spaces. Like the Shake Shak in New York City, which has become a networking phenomenon just by being well-located and offering dozens of outdoor table spaces for meeting, Nashville could use its public spaces for similar purposes. One of the teams also drew sketches of an Innovation Bus, a large vehicle outfitted with whiteboards, prototyping supplies, wifi, and a seating area off the back for groups to use as needed for their brainstorming sessions. The beauty of this idea is that it can be moved to wherever it is needed on any given day, as well as include people outside the normal business spheres. For instance, the bus could potentially be used by students working on school projects, and serve a dual purpose as an education vehicle (in both senses of the word) as well as a professional one.
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This question of shaping Nashville into an innovation hub is ongoing. Contact me to learn more and join our efforts!

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