Report on Georgia's Innovation Forums of 2006

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Wilkins, Joy
Brown, Mac
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Each year the Southern Growth Policies Board conducts a major policy research project to explore a vital issue related to economic development. A central component of the research project is to gather the opinions and experiences of citizens across the South. Partners are recruited across the South to assist in gathering stakeholder input. In 2005, Southern Growth launched its “Southern Innovation Initiative” noting that “The South’s competitiveness relies on establishing a culture of innovation – the ability to continuously invent and bring high value products and processes to the global marketplace. Technology is the primary tool for innovation.” Thus, the fundamental question for the 2006 policy research project is: “How can communities across the South harness the economic potential of technology and innovation?” Georgia’s economic development leaders strongly agree that there is a critical link between innovation capacity and the ability of our state’s communities, businesses, and citizens to thrive in the 21st Century. Innovation is recognized as not an option but a requirement – and those who fail to innovate are at great risk for being left behind. Two of Georgia’s flagship research universities, in partnership with the Georgia Centers of Innovation and several other local and regional partners, conducted forums to seek answers to Southern Growth’s policy question. Eighteen discussion forums were held across the state during February and March, and approximately 370 Georgians participated in these forums. While there are a variety of approaches to fostering innovation, the forums focused on exploring four select approaches to fostering innovation: Building knowledge, Encouraging entrepreneurship, Boosting existing business, and Recruiting innovation (people and investment). The forums were widely publicized, and invitations were offered to a wide variety of citizens. It is important to note that participation at all forums was optional and, therefore, based on self selection. As a result, it was noted at several of the forums that certain groups were under-represented. The Government, Business, and Education sectors accounted for the largest participation by stakeholders, overall. Forum participants were fairly well educated as more than three-quarters had earned a college degree. Two thirds of the participants indicated they hailed from a rural community. While participants were most frequently those who already recognized the importance of innovation and technology, that familiarity enabled many of them to identify key competitive challenges faced by today’s communities and businesses. Overall, the forums proved to be a positive force in igniting dialogue about what innovation and technology means for Georgia, and increasing the appetite among stakeholders across the state for both. In addition, they revealed and fostered information sharing about various “pockets of innovation” in Georgia. Overwhelmingly, EDUCATION was the dominant issue, and the “Building Knowledge” approach was viewed as pre-requisite to all other approaches for fostering innovation. Improvements in K-12 were seen as absolutely critical. There was also a significant call for improvements in reaching the technology “have nots.” Lack of parental involvement in their children’s education was cited as a general societal issue across Georgia that is hampering the educational experience and the quality of learning. Other specific recurring issues included: lack of cultural expectations for learning and achievement, a public school system oversaddled with administrative requirements, the need for greater emphasis on teaching problem-solving skills through math and science, the high school dropout rate, a missing link between school learning and practicality, and issues related to persistent poverty. In general, stakeholders preferred homegrown innovation as a means to economic prosperity and competitiveness as opposed to relying on external forces. There is no doubt that Georgia has made significant strides in its pursuit of innovation. However, there are great opportunities to better prepare our people and businesses for future success in the global economy.
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