Seattle’s Amazon Rain Forest

My final post is an edited version of the fuller post below, posted on CoreNet Global’s blog here.

“This poem has risen up from a modern world
Of ugly American cities. It has survived
Dogma and rednecks. It has learned to praise
The sun and earth, to lower
Its quirky, unneeded tail
Right into the thick of things.

This poem has small blind eyes
And an accidental bump
On its nose to feel through the dark.
It will never grow feathers
Or a unicorn’s spiral. It has accepted
Its horns like two mushrooms,
And will sacrifice itself for other
More efficient poems,
With larger muscles and sharper claws.

This poem scuttles along
On tiny legs, taking joy in the fact
That it has breathed its weak, small breaths,

Like a glowing ash
That has drifted up into a tree,
Everyone amazed that it has lasted
Its two or three minutes,
Before it gives itself up
To a branch’s black enveloping wing.”

- Poem of Natural Selection, By Peter Bethanis

Similar to this poem, innovations are born, compete, thrive, and die with increasing rapidity in the young urban jungle habitat that is South Lake Union (SLU). This Seattle neighborhood is one of many would-be American innovation districts that all vie for recognition as the country’s most fertile ground for invention. In a new economy that prizes ingenuity above most else, the stakes are high and Seattle holds one wildcard that just might help it claim victory—the Amazon Rain Forest.

SLU has an abundance of highly developed human capital and strategic partnerships between enterprises and institutions. While these key ingredients were stressed in earlier iterations of innovation systems theory, they alone are not the special advantage that I have alluded to.  More recent thinkers in the field of innovation stress the importance of innovation ecosystems, and the SLU ecosystem appears to hold several important advantages over its rivals.

In The Nature of Economies, the renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs emphasizes that both ecosystems and economies share many universal qualities and consequently recommends biomimicry as a technique for urban economic optimization. Biomimicry, the gleaning of design inspirations from nature, has been championed by many, but most notably by Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute. While frequently utilized by new inventions and technologies, it is also very relevant for systems design, and it appears to be a key factor behind the evolution towards “innovation ecosystems” theory.

The recent whitepaper and book of venture capitalist and innovation consultant Victor W. Hwang analyzes Silicon Valley as an ecosystem in order to identify systemic attributes that facilitate intense levels of innovation. If those attributes exist in a place, then that place can be termed an innovation ecosystem, or “Rainforest” as Hwang conveniently prefers. Many of the key mechanisms that Hwang uses to explain Silicon Valley’s success also operate in rainy Seattle’s South Lake Union district, the self-selected home of the booming tech giant, Amazon.

Contrasting with earlier theorists’ focus on system organization and structure, Hwang suggests that innovation is not a known product that can be farmed, but instead is more like a weed that springs up in the presence of creative chaos. To foster innovation, districts should “run operations like a rainforest, not controlling the specific processes but instead helping to set the right environmental variables that foster the unpredictable creation of new weeds. While plants are harvested most efficiently on farms, weeds sprout best in Rainforests.” So what are those key variables that make Rainforests work? “Diversity of talents, trust across social barriers, motivations that rise above short-term rationality, and social norms that promote promiscuous collaboration and experimentation among individuals. This is the culture of the Rainforest.”

Hwang’s examination of these key variables relates primarily to culture and this results in a set of prescribed behavioral norms or “rainforest rules” for fostering innovation. While this is helpful, it fails to recognize the latent potential of the built environment to help optimize those key variables that lead to invention. Amazon recognizes this potential and chose to locate in South Lake Union as a result.

Amazon’s location decision is a strategic rejection of the suburban norm for tech heavyweights, many of which choose Silicon Valley. The dense South Lake Union innovation ecosystem offers several key advantages, especially diversity of talent. Diversity of talent not only helped inspire the propagation of biomimicry as a design strategy, but it also explains the planned colocation of innovation industries in burgeoning innovation ecosystems such as SLU. Janine Benyus uses the term “fertile crescent” to describe the overlapping edges between fields of thought that are so effective at breeding innovation. The pairing of life sciences and technology industries is a common example of this and is a key advantage for SLU. Seattle’s cultural diversity and tolerance is another layer that amplifies the creative productivity of talent.

Beyond talent diversity, the low cost of living and density in SLU (relative to Silicon Valley) promotes “rapid, promiscuous collaboration and experimentation among individuals”—a startup culture that produces symbionts or parasites, depending on the point of view that Amazon adopts. Considering that Amazon’s own organizational structure favors smaller and autonomous innovation units that parallel startups in many ways, it’s reasonable to assume that the company values the startup-friendly ecosystem and is willing to risk the potential loss of talent in exchange for creative synergies and serendipitous epiphanies. In other words, Amazon is willing to “trust across social barriers” due to its “motivations that rise above short-term rationality.” While some talent flows might leave the boundaries of its corporate system, Amazon is now positioned in the heart of a larger Rain Forest. This is a competitive strategy unlike any of its tech rivals—a significant advantage in the new economy of the 21st century.

When Jeff Bezos directs Amazon’s real estate team to read Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, it’s a victory not only for South Lake Union, but also for nature and economies everywhere. The importance and power of corporate actors is steadily increasing, for better or worse. Acknowledging this, it is absolutely critical that more corporations recognize the value of dense, urban environments. Leveraging corporate investment to make cities more livable and productive places is a key strategy towards ensuring a sustainable future for the global ecosystem.

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