Innovation needs community

Leaders talk about having a “culture of innovation”, but culture can be limited to the confines of the organisation.  A community development approach can be better suited to the open nature of the innovation ecosystem. Top-down leadership approaches centralised in an individual or organisation are giving way to new forms of distributed leadership that share influence across entrepreneurs, investors, customers, and established commercial and academic institutions. The health of the innovation ecosystem depends on the strength of this community.

More than just a group of people who share similarities, community describes the relationships between people. The quality of a community is dependent on the strength of the relationships, based on trust and shared value.

“Community cannot be engineered. It is a natural by-product of healthy, loving relationships which then foster associations of friendship movements.”

The above quote is from community leader Dave Andrews, in an interview for Jean Caldow’s thesis work. Dave has a lifetime of experience in working with and in communities to address complex and pervasive challenges. If anyone is able to take a position of authority to “engineer community”, it would be Dave Andrews. And yet he states that the only way to develop community is through “associations of friendship movements”.

Dave’s sentiments can seem contrary to traditional commercial perspectives, but we need new ways of doing things if we are to avoid innovating our way into the same old challenges. Principles of community development may be the new ways we are looking for.

Researching and reflecting on community development

My research borrowed on my exposure to community development from my work in the not for profit and social enterprise sectors and my academic background in social science. My intent is not to present a definitive list, but pull together enough examples to test the connection between community development and approaches to a community-centered approach to innovation.

Examples used

Community development is a dedicated discipline, with its own standards, professions, and associations. I pulled together a few perspectives below (follow the link for a larger image). It is notable that the different perspectives do not conflict, but rather place different emphasis depending on the community context in which they apply. 

Questions asked

I examined these perspectives and a few other examples with some questions in mind:

  1. Shared or distinct
    What principles are shared and which are unique to each approach?
  2. Innovation connection
    How do community development principles apply towards supporting effective innovation?
  3. Personal experience
    How are these principles reflected in my own experience with communities in not for profit, small business, corporate, and start-up sectors?
  4. Practical application
    Are there common themes that can be easily and practically applied by leaders and communities?

Definitions and audience

It can help to understand what communities I refer to and who might find value in these principles.

By community, I am referring to:

  • The community of the open innovation ecosystem;
  • The community in which corporate and not for profit organisations operate, including employees, suppliers, customers / clients, etc.; and
  • Regional communities.

I have written and re-read this through the eyes of:

  • Organisational leaders developing strategies for innovation;
  • Government agencies developing communities of innovation;
  • Consultancies, universities, and service providers participating in the innovation ecosystem;
  • Start-up entrepreneurs navigating and influencing their community context; and
  • Professionals responsible for community development.

I look forward to working with peers, colleagues, and friends in this space to test and refine our collective perspectives.

Objective and model

My intent is not to recreate or replace existing frameworks, but to apply these specifically towards the development of innovation. As leaders head into their next cycles of strategic planning, I also hope to prompt thinking about what it means to be in community as we realise our collective outcomes.

What came out was the model below.  At 21 principles across three focus areas, I acknowledge the tension between providing a simple approach that is easy to understand versus a comprehensive list.

Principles of community development

Details of the principles are outlined below.  I have also added some prompting questions so you can ask yourself these questions and because I will be using these to test for the projects and programs in which I am involved.

How do we see community?

People tend to live up or down to the standards we set for them, and how we behave towards others is based on our attitudes about them. Before engagement even starts, the first set of principles focus on how the community is perceived by those who are intentional about its development.

1. Unconditional positive regard

If the community is viewed as broken, needing help, or a problem to solve, then there is a risk of creating a dependency, putting the community off-sides, and feeding the ego of those driving the innovation agenda. Unconditional positive regard means that all community members in the ecosystem are viewed as sufficient and complete before you engage.

  • How do we view the community we are engaging? Is the community a problem to solve or a positive community to be journeyed with?
  • Are there conditions on our engagement? What is my self-interest in the engagement? If I have a natural self-interest, how do I mitigate that?

2. Diversity

Innovation happens at the cross-section of diverse perspectives, and you need diversity to make that happen.  Diversity includes all groups in the community based on nationality, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, physical and learning ability, political view, employment status, leadership levels and class status, socio-economic status, profession, industry, and sector. For commercial innovation, this also includes the diversity of the supply chain (sales, procurement, logistics, warehousing, finance, etc.) and the innovation ecosystem (capital, accelerator, working spaces, hackathons, corporations, academia).

  • What are all the different groups in our community?
  • Are there groups I will be naturally biased towards or against? What are my blind spots, either due to ignorance or preference?

3. Citizens at the centre

Community is about relationships and relationships are about people. Community is not a task to be completed to achieve an end goal of profitability or innovation outcomes. If the people are first, equipped with a focus on collective outcomes, then the community will define the innovation it needs.

  • Are we viewing our community as groupings of organisations or assets, or as a collection of people?
  • What does it mean to get to know the people, regardless of how we perceive they contribute towards the outcomes?

How do we engage?

A principle-led approach and process ensures we are intentional about how we engage.


4. Inclusive

Inclusiveness is both explicit and implicit. Examples from an innovation perspective include using language that people from a range of technology awareness can understand, holding meeting times and networking events that accommodate single parents or part time staff, using technology to engage with individuals who are remote, and creating space for those with differing perspectives.

  • Are the activities, programs, products, services, and physical spaces accessible for the community’s diverse groups? Do we need to modify or allow for multiple options?
  • Is the language we use appropriate for the audience?

5. Leverage strengths

It is more effective to leverage strengths in the existing community than to bring in new strengths or skills. What was innovative from another community may not be appropriate in every context. Identify, celebrate, and leverage existing strengths to access the community’s “muscle memory” and build on what is already there.

  • What are the historical and existing strengths in the community? Who holds these strengths and what is the value of these strengths?
  • How do our strategies take advantage of these strengths? How can these strengths provide a competitive advantage?

6. Local

We will see an increase in innovation experts, and innovation services will centralise in capital cities and in major consultancies for economies of scale. While it can be tempting to bring in outside leadership, the use of external experts and resources needs to be used for inspiration to leverage and develop local resources, culture, knowledge, and skills. This applies to regions as well as corporations. Outsourcing innovation now means a loss of intellectual property in the future.

  • Have we created a value map of local knowledge, resource, culture, and skills assets?
  • Where can we partner with external resources to increase and establish linkages with local assets? How can we ensure we build local intellectual property in the process?

7. Global

Local innovation can be developed with a global mindset. Start-ups described as “born global” consider supply chains, distribution networks, and customer markets beyond the confines of the immediate region or company boundaries.  This involves identifying and creating ties with the global community for input and export that relate to innovation opportunities.

  • Who are the global leaders and organisations we can learn from? What is similar and what is different between our situations?
  • Where can we be “born global”, creating global connections at the start for input of ideas and resources and export of outcomes?

8. Human rights

Innovation is morally neutral. Innovation can increase wage inequalities as much as it can minimise embedded inequality. Every community has those who are disadvantaged, and those disadvantaged are often hidden. The starting point is to “do no harm”, but there is opportunity in directly engaging with the disadvantaged. The part-time single parent who does not have access to high-profile corporate projects becomes the entrepreneur. The community that employees volunteer at becomes a social enterprise. The staff member’s passion project becomes a product line for the company to open a new market.

  • Who are the members of our community who are most disadvantaged? How can our approach positively impact them?
  • Where are we at risk of creating more disadvantage by our actions? How do we mitigate or eliminate this risk?

9. Empower

Empowerment means the community has the power to achieve the outcomes. It is moving from a dependent perspective to one of ownership and accountability. Communities empowered for innovation know what resources they have available and what they need to do to get more resources, what it means to fail and how to learn from failure, and their own accountabilities in the community.

  • What resources have we provided the community to achieve its own outcomes? Have we created connections and frameworks for the community to identify what resources it needs and source those resources?
  • Are there perspectives and narratives the community will need to change to be empowered? What is the collective language we need to use?

10. Respect the past

There is a tendency in innovation to disregard what has come before. Disrupted markets can be disregarded or disrespected to make way for the new. Innovation is only possible as a result of the depth of successes and failures that came before. There would be no electric car without diesel, no Netflix without VHS tapes, no Spotify without vinyl. The stories and leadership of the past are participants in the journey towards new ideas for the future.

  • Do we have a record of the history of our community? Who holds that record? How do we respect that history? Can we see our history embedded in the present and future of our community?
  • What parts of our history do we need to acknowledge and leave behind, and which parts will serve us into the future?

11. Holistic and balanced

All parts of the community can be engaged in a manner that is balanced.  Innovation comes from anywhere. To minimise the resource load on community or organisational leaders, this principle places emphasis on effective frameworks for engagement to create clear pathways for the community to interact. This is throughout the innovation process, including knowledge and information distribution, idea generation, proof of concept testing, implementation, and sharing of outcomes.

  • Are we engaging across all aspects of our community? Are there parts we are missing for certain activities or messages, or who are not engaged altogether?
  • How is our approach balanced to place emphasis where it is needed? Are we over-engaging in some areas and engaging too little in others?

12. Participatory and collaborative

Both community development and innovation are done “with” the community, not “to” or “for” the community. The sooner you get people involved and the more they can see their DNA on the outcomes, the more likely they will be part of the solution. Encouraging active participation allows the wider community to be involved, while collaboration places emphasis on co-creating the outcomes. Participation and collaboration drives innovation as the community engages in action-based learning in a safe environment.

  • What is it about the activities, programs, products, and services that encourages participation and collaboration?
  • How have we ensured true collaboration? Are we sourcing ideas from the community and working with the community to develop and execute on those ideas?

13. Conversation: Ask, listen, don’t tell

Innovation prefers a café over a classroom or a boardroom. The process of asking questions is powerful if done right, with open questions like “Why does that happen?”, “What could be?”, and “What works well?” Questions can be challenging but also generative. When people are truly listened to, ideas build on each other’s responses, blame is avoided, and the conversation focuses on new ideas to achieve the desired positive outcome. The role of those developing community is then one of a facilitator who assists the community in crafting the conversation and narrative.

  • Do we lead with statements or questions? What is our balance of telling versus asking?
  • Where are we creating spaces for conversations across the community? How are we equipping our community to have constructive conversations?


14. Sustainable

Innovation needs broad community support to be sustainable. If the innovation is dependent on a single individual or organisation, then it is at risk of losing that single point of failure from burnout or new opportunities and limited by the capability of the individual. This places emphasis on frameworks that will enable the community to develop innovation, as compared to relying on individual leadership to drive innovation.  We see this in successful innovation in corporations that are resilient to CEO turnover, open-source technology communities that adapt to platform changes, and regional technology hubs that create robust networks between multiple groups.

  • Where is the focus on me doing the work, and where can the community support development? Where am I and those accountable for community development at risk of burnout?
  • What frameworks can we put in place to ensure our community is resilient and sustainable? How do we reinvest what we have learned?

15. Transparent

Trust is critical for community. Trust avoids a protective, fear-based response that inhibits sharing, creativity, and innovation. Trust is developed when there is a transparency of process and outcomes that also respects confidentiality and the realities of commercial competitive advantage.

  • How do we report and share outcomes? What is the frequency, and is the medium appropriate for the audiences?
  • How do we protect confidentiality and intellectual property? What do we have in place to balance this with the need for transparency?

16. Appropriately paced

Innovation’s current rapid pace of change, driven by competitive market pressures and a “fear of missing out”, can feel in opposition to the natural change resistance inherent to large, established communities. There are also those who are on different places in life. The entrepreneurial risk appetite for a 50-year old executive or 20-year-old college graduate will be a lot different than a 30-year old parent with a mortgage. A blended approach is needed that allows full participation, challenging the status quo without leaving a significant portion of the community behind.

  • What are the factors that are setting the pace of change? What is driving urgency, and how can we both leverage and mitigate that? What are the barriers to change, and how do we understand and address those barriers?
  • How do we support aspects of the community that need to go at a faster pace than others? How do we not leave behind parts of the community that need a slower pace, because they need more time to prepare or adjust?

What describes our outcomes?

Community development is not a goal in itself, but a means to realise outcomes such as innovation for economic and social prosperity.  Principles focused on outcomes help keep the end in mind.

17. Quality

It feels good to operate to a standard of excellence. Achieving and celebrating community success is generative and self-perpetuating. Innovation is not defined by failure, but by the shared learning and continuous improvement that comes from iterative lessons on the path to high quality outcomes.

  • What is our standard of excellence? Is this developed, understood, and agreed to, and owned by the community?
  • How do we manage quality? How do we manage our documentation and measurement? What do we do when we have issues? How do we manage conflict and corrective actions? How do we manage community training and continuous improvement?

18. Integrity

Innovation can be characterised by taking shortcuts and challenging convention as entrepreneurs change the rules or change the game. This does not mean that innovation lacks morals or ethics. Innovation outcomes can be aligned with and help define the community’s moral compass.

  • What is our moral compass? What do we agree is acceptable and not acceptable? How do we hold ourselves accountable for this? What are the checks and balances?
  • Do we do what we say we do? Do we practice what we preach? Do we use our own products, services, and approaches? What is our evidence?

19. Shared

Outcomes from the innovation process are shared with the local and global community. Channels include communication strategies as well as embedding innovation by applying the innovation in the local community as well as exporting to external markets.  This helps encourage further innovation and broaden continue community development.

  • How do we celebrate, share, and distribute the outcomes? How do we do this both in our community and outside the community?
  • How do we ensure the shared outcomes are used? How is our success proven by actual use?

20. Discovered

Innovation is inherently bold and dangerous. Outcomes are not known before you begin, but are discovered through the collaborative community development process. The process of discovery in itself prompts further innovation and ideas.

  • Can we trace how the outcomes were developed by the community, or were they pre-defined before we started?
  • How can we show that we build capability for discovering new ideas within the community?

21. Build capital, capability, capacity

Innovation is more than ideas and learning. There must be practical outcomes including capital that produces returns, increased capability that can be leveraged, and / or increased capacity to deliver more. A portion of these returns can then be reinvested back into the community for further development.

  • How are we measuring the outcomes? How do we manage data, are we using the information for future decision making, and how do we report?
  • Are we measuring both commercial and social impact? What are our key performance indicators? How do we measure what matters?

Over to you (I mean us)

My intent is to use this list as a test for upcoming strategy work and innovation programs I am doing for regional councils, not for profit groups, social enterprises, small businesses, and corporations.

I believe we need more than just individuals and organisations if we are to address the significant challenges facing society and take advantage of our incredible opportunities. We need community.

Does the list apply to your context? Are there additional perspectives that need to be considered?  Is a community development approach necessary, or is innovation happening well enough on its own?

Borrowing from Dave Andrews’ perspective and in the spirit of community and collaboration, I welcome your input as part of our collective association of friendship.

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