Creating Centers of Innovation

I attended breakfast this morning with, among others, Richard Carranza, Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, Deborah Stipek, Dean at Stanford University, and Phil Halperin, one of the owners of the San Francisco Giants.

Baseball and Education – two of my greatest passions. 🙂

Our discussion was around the process of creating a center for innovation within a large urban school district. Yes, I know, when you hear "large urban school district" you think bureaucracy, budget cuts, and boredom – not ground-breaking innovation. But the people at our breakfast this morning are doing it, and doing it in a way that can serve as an example for other large organizations who want to create centers of innovation within their enterprise.

In this particular case, there are three ingredients that made it happen: (1) A school district that wants to foster innovation; (2) a nearby University which can provide research faculty and methodology; and (3) private capital from sources who have a vested interest in the community. Those ingredients were in the room this morning, in spades.

The Stanford-SFUSD Partnership currently has a total of 29 incubation projects in play, ranging from an Early Warning Indicator algorithm (finding data patterns that can identify kids who are at risk so that intervention can be applied early), to Reading Like a Historian (an innovative curriculum that exposes students to primary sources for learning history instead of traditional textbooks), to a new digital messaging platform that sends parents daily text message tips on how they can help to build their kids' literacy skills at home.

From my experience, one of the challenges with creating centers of innovation is that (almost by definition) innovation requires risk-taking, and most operating enterprises are mandated to mitigate risk at every turn. School districts are obviously a prime example of risk-averse organizations.

The Stanford-SFSUD Partnership provides a way for the school district to foster innovation while containing the risk that comes with it. By having Stanford provide the research faculty, classroom teachers aren't taken away from their classroom duties. By having private donors provide the capital, operating funds are not diverted from the classroom. The fact that several of those private donors are from the venture capital field means that they have expertise in applying capital in ways that genuinely help support innovation.

And that brings me to the most important point of all: a partnership like this provides a venue for collaboration and cross-pollination between genuine experts from several different disciplines. That's how the magic happens.

Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.       -William Pollard