Thursday, January 29, 2015

What Communities Can Learn from Thomas Edison

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President. 

I lucked upon a very interesting and well-made biography of Thomas Edison last night on PBS. It’s always useful to get the full picture of a historical icon such as Edison to bring some perspective and shading to what is often a singularly reverential image and legacy. To be sure, Edison was perhaps the most impactful innovator and businessman of the last 150 years, but he also had his faults and his failures. In some cases, spectacular, expensive, and years-long failures like an ill-advised foray into iron-ore refining. He could also be stubborn to a fault – so much so that it eventually cost him his stake in what became General Electric. Above all, however, Edison was a preternatural optimist and never let setbacks get in the way of his long-term vision or ambition. As I tend to do, I starting thinking about the connections between Edison’s philosophy, process, and prowess and the workings of community and economic development. Here then are some key takeaways from the story of Thomas Edison that can inform how communities seek to grow and succeed in a hyper-competitive global economy.

Don’t Be Discouraged by Limitations

Even before adulthood, Edison was hard of hearing and could barely discern sounds or speech more than a couple feet away from him. But this was also the man who invented the phonograph and schmoozed financiers as needed to fund his labs, inventions, and businesses. Too often, communities restrain their ambitions because they outsize the challenges posed by, for example, lack of a hub airport, lack of a research university, or a harsh winter, to name just a few. While these issues certainly impact competitive position, they are not make-or-break challenges that should cause a community to compromise its vision or settle for second-tier status.

Be Curious, “Creatively Borrow,” and Optimize

Like Bill Gates and Microsoft Windows, Edison often took existing technologies and evolved them to become market-changing innovations and products. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone before Edison’s phonograph, but Edison challenged himself to devise a way to record and play back sound. (An aside: being almost obsessively competitive is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to market domination.) The first patent for a light bulb came almost 40 years before Edison developed his prototype. And “motion pictures” were already an emerging technology before Edison created the Kinetoscope. In each case, however, Edison knew intuitively that the technology could be enhanced to be transformational and disruptive. And he didn’t stop until achieving his goal. As Edison became interested in motion pictures after attending a lecture by photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, communities should always be on the lookout for good ideas, best practices, and innovative programs from other places. But, so too, should they never assume that an existing idea will work for them lock, stock, and barrel without customizing and vetting it for their population, economy, and geography.

Don’t Cling to Outdated Ideas

As noted, Edison was stubborn. So much so that he insisted despite contrary evidence that his DC power was superior to the AC power of a competitor, even to the point of losing control of General Electric after his investors froze him out and acquired a smaller AC firm. Communities shouldn’t be blind to the prospect that a competitor might have advanced a program or process beyond what they have achieved. An example would be an existing-business program. Simply continuing to visit employers and query them on their challenges and hiring plans may not be enough to fully capitalize on retention and expansion opportunities. A new innovation like economic gardening might be a worthwhile addition to provide the assistance necessary to really make an impact on local job-creation.

Be a Canny Promoter

From the outset of his career as a full-time inventor, Edison was conscious of cultivating his “brand” as a world-changing innovator. His discoveries were often consciously “leaked” to the press to build buzz in advance of media-friendly launch events worthy of today’s most savvy marketers. He took his phonograph on the road to newspapers and government chambers and fully illuminated his Menlo Park lab in a New Year’s Eve unveiling of his perfected light bulb. The press ate it up, making Edison a revered, almost godlike icon in his own lifetime. Later in Edison’s career, his eponymous company sustained itself almost exclusively by trumpeting his name and image in products and advertisements. While there is a fine line between self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, most if not all communities already understand the importance of external marketing, but maybe not as it relates to promoting the process as well as its results. Very often, investors will make a bet on a community that might not be optimally competitive, but is laser-focused and aggressive in its strategic improvement.

Build a Great Team

Edison was the brain; Edison was the brand. But he wouldn’t have been successful without the group of talented and accomplished individuals he gathered around him at all stages of his career, from the early Menlo Park days to the final corporate baron years. He was clearly an effective manager and multitasker and worked longer and harder than everyone in his employ, but Edison never was foolhardy enough to think that he could do everything – or even most things – by himself. A community’s “team” is more complicated and diverse than a corporation’s, involving public and private leadership from across multiple sectors and constituencies. But if local leadership does not have the collective vision, persistence, patience, and passion to aspire to high goals and work to achieve them, the community will languish or decline.

Today’s communities have to invent and reinvent themselves constantly to stay abreast or ahead of the competition. Looking to the most famous inventor of the modern era provides valuable perspective on what it takes to disrupt the status quo and affect transformative change.