How to actually encourage DC innovation

To learn more about what D.C. needs to do to spur innovation and economic growth, we spoke to Jack McDougle. McDougle is the president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, one of the region’s most dedicated organizations when it comes to meeting the challenge of growing our economy through fresh and interesting means.

ABERMAN: Tell us: what is the Board of Trade, and what does it do?

MCDOUGLE: The Board of Trade is a membership organization representing industry sectors across our region, and we are focused on strategic questions. What sort of a business environment do we want to have in the future, where we can prosper? And balanced with that, also, is what do we want our communities to be like? So, we’re not as engaged in day to day tactical issues, but really kind of creating the business environment that will drive future productivity and growth.

ABERMAN: And the history of this region is one where a lot of our economy, and a lot of the structure of our economy and our communities, really were driven by the business community. There’s a long history. I believe your organization has a 130-year history. So, we tend to think about this place as a government town, perhaps. But the reality is, it’s a business town.

MCDOUGLE: It really is a business town, and there’s a thriving business community here, and it’s growing all the time. We are still somewhat dependent on business services, professional services, particularly around doing business with the federal government. That’s an advantage that we have that few regions across the country do have. But it’s not enough. And as you think about the changing dynamic globally, and how global competitiveness is changing, and how new technologies are coming online, particularly disruptive technologies, we really need to add. So, I don’t really even think about it as diversifying our economic portfolio, but it’s that we need to add to it.

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ABERMAN: So, we have companies here like Mars, and Capital One, and the cell industry started here. There are many, many examples, like precision medicine, where we’re doing technology products that have nothing do with the federal government. This is a big business town. You’ve come here from the outside, you came down I think from New York, you’ve looked at other places in the country where job growth is faster, high-growth companies are growing more. What is it about our region that we really need to get after, to keep up or run ahead of the other business communities in the country, and around the world?

MCDOUGLE: Well, I think innovation. Innovation is really key. Innovation is key to economic growth, economic prosperity. Innovation is key to national defense and national security, and so, if you’re not innovating, you’re constantly falling behind. And because the innovation equation now moves so quickly, you really have to stay out in front of it. You know, one thing I would add to the equation that you just mentioned, too, is that our region just landed Micron, an advanced chip manufacturer. So, our region also has capacity to manufacture product, which I think is one of those additive elements that we need to bring that will really help push the prosperity that we’re gonna need over the long term.

ABERMAN: Now, when I hear innovation, what I tend to think of is, it’s a behavior. You know, it’s a human behavior where somebody takes what currently exists, figures out what doesn’t exist and what needs are out there, and builds something in anticipation, and gets it right, so that if, suddenly, there’s demand, customers and businesses want what you have to sell. That’s what innovation means to me, and it can be social innovation, too, providing better services. So, I see it as a behavioral thing. Is that really, ultimately, our biggest challenge here, that we have a culture where we’ve benefited from enormous stability because of our proximity to the federal government? Maybe we’re not risk-takers enough, or we’re not encouraged to be creative enough? What do you think?

MCDOUGLE: Innovation does require a certain tolerance for risk, as well as failure. You know, no one knew they needed a post-it note until they were shown one, post-it notes were developed because of a mistake. So, if you think about if you’re trying to solve a problem, and you’re going after that problem, you may fail in solving that problem, but you may find a solution to something else. And so, you have to really be thinking holistically, and not just focused in on the one thing that you’re trying to do. So, innovation needs to be very broad, I think. And so, creating an innovative environment means improving the risk tolerance, managing for failure, embracing failure, not trying to eliminate failure. But what does that look like? And that’s kind of the antithesis of what we did in the 20th century. So, as we become more innovative, how do we create that kind of a culture? It becomes a real shift in mindset.

ABERMAN: So, a number of groups in town, business groups, are really focused on affordable housing, for example, and issues like that, talent creation. I have the impression that innovation, if people are taking risks and pushing the boundary, the pie grows, and a lot of these other issues tend to take care of themselves. What do you think?

MCDOUGLE: I think 10 percent of a thousand is better than 50 percent of a hundred. So, you want to grow the portfolio. You want to grow the economy. And so, you just try to look at what are some of the constraints? We talk a lot about transportation, very serious issue, congestion here needs to be resolved. Housing issues, particularly housing availability and affordability, are also issues. I think those issues get addressed by creating a more innovative environment, by attracting the investment, by attracting the talent, to doing things that are cool, and really trying to push the envelope.

And as you do that, and as you grow the economic portfolio, innovation is number one. Things around smart cities, and other types of technologies, and bringing those on board, will help provide solutions to some of those other challenges. But also, by growing the economy, you’re then growing wealth, and wealth affords you the resources you need to make the investments. We’re cash strapped. Our cities are cash strapped, our counties are cash strapped, the federal government is cash strapped. So, we really need to grow the economy, and growing the economy requires innovation.

ABERMAN: It requires being willing to take risks, and push boundaries.

MCDOUGLE: It does.

ABERMAN: So, Jack, the Board of Trade, if I’m listening and I want to be involved in this organization, how do I do that?

MCDOUGLE: Reach out to me, check out our website, and send us a note. We’ll be happy to get you involved, there’s a lot of different activities that we have underway right now around our smart region projects, looking at everything from food and economic security, to closing the digital divide, to looking at how we can create platforms for advanced medical technologies, to improve health care services, and a number of other things. So, take a look, and if you have any questions, let us know, and I would be happy to have a conversation with you.

ABERMAN: Folks, that was Jack McDougle, President and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.