recession innovation + entrepreneurship

wordle map of this blog's content

wordle map of this blog's content

Historically,  times of hardship have inspired some of our most pioneering and creative periods. So, this should be a particularly fertile time for inventors and entrepreneurs!

macro trend: surge in innovation + entrepreneurship

There’s a swelling number of people around me who are taking control of their destinies through innovation, reinvention and entrepreneurship to cope with uncertainty and turbulence. I suppose that when the rug’s pulled out from under us, we tend to rely more on ourselves – and risk more on ourselves.

Even in the South Bronx where I currently teach illegal immigrants English and Life Skills (including entrepreneurship), the conversation drifts to starting up micro-businesses, even if only to get a street vending license (which doesn’t require a green card). They tell me, “if I can’t get legitimate work due to my status, then I need to create my own livelihood.”  For many, there is no option but to create work opportunity. The risk is to not take risk.

Additionally, many are realizing that proprietary intellectual property is currency and it’s wise to own some IP as a long-term safety net. (Ironically, intellectual capital, the antithesis to solid gold, is the new hedge against inflation and fiat currencies.) No wonder in Q1’09 US patents were up 13% and new business start-ups were up 7% nationally.

  •  related trend #1: thinkcubating   In the ‘90s Faith Popcorn observed that Americans were “cocooning” (i.e., comfortably nesting). Today, I see Americans incubating, or rather “thinkubating” (i.e., hunkering down to fortify and “hatch” ideas to re-emerge stronger). It’s both a defensive and offensive strategy where home becomes a laboratory, training facility and learning center. Think: intellect and skill-developing games like Wii, educational/instructional books, magazines, CDs and websites and DIY home workshops with professional-grade tools.
  • related trend #2:  self evaluation + realignment  Abrupt uncomfortable change forces people (and businesses) to reassess, recalibrate and reposition. Thankfully, because being self-aware and re-evaluating our lives from time to time is a good thing. No wonder there’s a lot of buzz in my circles about “executive reinvention”, as the newly unemployed are realizing the tactics for getting and keeping a job have changed. Many I know are changing their careers all together, and others are changing the way they do things to differentiate. Think: culture cartography 🙂

why now?

Everyone’s got ideas but we all know it’s better to have one great idea than a million lame ones. What’s rare is when a good idea is successfully executed. Recently, I’ve noticed a spurt in entrepreneurs and creative, inventive people around me seeking to actually follow through with ideas. Ideas I’ve been hearing about for years.  Inventors are finally pursuing patents and VC, while writers are suddenly self-publishing. I see the confluence of three dynamics driving this spike in innovation and entrepreneurship:

  • driver #1: crazy optimism  Recently I observed in some ethnographies an almost delusional American optimism; a conviction that life in America will get better soon. Real better, real soon. I’ve also read a poll (Business Week on “the American Dream” where 59% of respondents said they believed in that dream because “I’m intelligent and work hard, so I should succeed” and about 25% said they expected success because “I’m an optimist.” Perhaps this optimism stems from religion? Or naiveté? Whatever the causes, an optimistic outlook and expected rosy outcome definitely feeds the appetite for risk. 
  • driver #2: provoked collaborations  Funny how many people from my past have resurfaced in recent months to reconnect. When people feel vulnerable they crave the safety of community. This hyper-social-networking is leading to new collaborations, where limited resources are being pooled and talents shared. Not all inventors have the ability to raise capital, out-source production and manage a business. But I’ve witnessed new partnerships get ideas – ventures – off the ground, where they once might not have because the IP owner wasn’t willing (wasn’t forced by circumstance) to share. 
  • driver #3: desperate urgency  The fourth dimension of mapping concepts is time (see Mapping in 4D – link). Today I see a time-sensitivity that was not present before in the inventors and entrepreneurs that are now making things happen. There’s a perception that the window of opportunity is closing (which is pessimistic, counter to that idealistic optimism). The inverse is also true – where some of my peers (including myself) fear missing opportunity. For many, like my students in the South Bronx, they have no other alternative but to create jobs for themselves. One marketing colleague said, “l’m the product and the market for my market is saturated. I either have to change the product or create an entirely new market for myself.”  

analog: post-apartheid South Africa

I’m reminded of the resourcefulness I witnessed during 1996-98 in newly democratized, post-Apartheid South Africa. The “previously disadvantaged” of South Africa built cottage industries to create work where there was none.  One of the results being that South Africa is today one of the largest, growing craft producing countries in the world. The South African entrepreneurs I met all had a plan (a vision for themselves, their families and society). They were optimistic, collaborative and possessed a sense of urgency. South Africa has always struck me as one of the most resourceful, inventive and entrepreneurial countries I’ve ever experienced (if not the most).  They innovated their way out of hardship – despite a lack of resources, infrastructure, trade partners, etc. Ironically, America – the wealthiest and first-est of the first world countries – could learn a lot from emerging markets like South Africa for models of blossoming innovation and entrepreneurship in tough economies.

what if?

South Africa could be an analog for the South Bronx.  I can imagine a duty free craft manufacturing zone being built in the Bronx. In South Africa the manufacturing zones that consolidated and supported micro-business were called “manufacturing hives”. They offered safe, secure infrastructure, the economies of pooled procurement, tax and utility breaks, marketing support and training (often as apprenticeships). Workers could “graduate” into their own work-stations and ultimately own and build their own businesses under the safety net of the umbrella brand. A great example of a jewelry manufacturing hive in Soweto is Vukani Ubuntu (

This is a bit like my former client Oro di Roma, which is a consortia of small jewelers in Rome ( The Italian government offers incentives and funds the marketing, promotion and export sales of the 700 small jewelers who contribute jewelry to the Oro di Roma brand.  Another impressive hive is the Gemopolis ( on the outskirts of Bangokok.

Perhaps one way we can tap and foster entrepreneurship and stimulate innovation is to rally Mayor Bloomberg to set aside stimulus money to create a manufacturing hive in the South Bronx (like those found in South Africa, India, Bangkok… and many other developing markets)?


2 thoughts on “recession innovation + entrepreneurship

  1. Some terrific thoughts. Love the idea of a duty-free craft manufacturing zone in the Bronx. Who do you see being the most likely market as workers? And what’s it take to make something like this happen? Gov’t. money, of course, and what else?


    • Thanks DB – I imagine this duty-free craft zone in a neighborhood that is home to: 1) the disadvantaged, 2) the disabled and 3) the disenfranchised. The South Bronx comes to mind as a place that needs skills development, employment and investment. Think: “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” The “hive” should be located in the neighborhood it’s intending to serve (and hive workers should be drawn from the local ‘hood) because a key component of hive success is tourism. When both hive and community have simpatico the hive becomes a pride-point, which is attractive to tourism.

      The hive needs to be built so that it can receive busloads of tourists who will enjoy watching the craft being made, interact with the artisans and learn about the techniques (for appreciation, essential to the margin). This “craft-tourism” model not only generates additional sales, but is also a marketing strategy to “get the word out” about the zone and to enable artisans to interact directly with consumers to test/refine products. So, collaboration with NYC’s tourism institutions would be necessary. In addition, the security and safety – of both the workers and the tourists – are critical. Thus, the zone would need support from the Police department. Finally, government (federal and local) would offer tax relief, subsidized utilities and incentives to jump-start the initiative.

      Darryl sagely suggested that this might jive with the existing Federal Empowerment Zone (FEZ) program in New York which is focused on the creation of self-sustaining, long-term economic development in designated distressed urban areas. The Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation and the Bronx Empowerment Zones are two organizations that I ought to approach… so I will… and I’ll let you know what happens.

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