The Innovation Imperative

October 22, 2015

Seattle’s next major breakthrough — democratic innovation 

By Vikram Jandhyala
Vice Provost for Innovation at the University of Washington

Vikram Jandhyala

Vikram Jandhyala

Seattle is at a crossroads right now.

And, as described in a recent New York Times article, it can go one of two ways.

It can become another San Francisco, with all the successes, but also all the failures that San Francisco represents. Or it can be something different, and go the Seattle way.

The New York Times article talks about what the challenges are, and what the issues are, but it doesn’t discuss the Seattle way.

I believe that the Seattle way means that — broadly defined — innovation can make a true and positive difference in many people’s lives.

Innovation is typically considered very narrowly, as in technology innovation, or biotech innovation, or business innovation. It’s also assumed and accepted that innovation causes dislocation, and that there are people who gain from innovation, and people who are fearful of innovation. Part of this story line is that the latter group is negatively impacted by innovation.

Innovation should be inclusive and democratic. And, if it is, it can be a big part of the societal solutions we’re looking for today.

Whether this is true or not, none of us can really say for sure.

But, from my perspective, innovation should be inclusive and democratic. And, if it is, it can be a big part of the societal solutions we’re looking for today.

To make innovation more inclusive and democratic, we need to reach out to people beyond the technology community, beyond the coders, engineers, scientists and venture capitalists. That means engaging the community at large in the innovation process and cycle.

That means making sure that innovation isn’t a trickle-down phenomenon from the top.

That means tackling the big and relevant issues and meeting people’s real needs through breakthrough and invention.

That means thinking about innovation in language that transcends mere bits and bytes or molecules.

And, finally, that means looking at innovation through a lens that includes legal, social, regulatory and policy issues — taking a much more holistic approach to innovation.

We’re thinking hard about this at the University of Washington. And, in the past year, for example, we’ve launched CoMotion, the UW’s collaboration innovation hub that is dedicated to the idea of democratic innovation — whether it’s working with the community or looking at the big social challenges and bringing all the people who are impacted by these issues, or who can impact them, together. The bottom line is that CoMotion infuses innovation with as much diversity and diversity of thinking as possible.

A good example of the UW’s socially conscious innovation efforts involves Sara Goering, Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Program on Values in Society, who has been doing fascinating work that views children as innovators. Or take a look at the recently formed Urban@UW, which is focusing on inclusive innovation for the future of cities.

Another example is unfolding at the UW’s School of Social Work. The teachers and students there are using new technology that centers around social media and suicide prevention as well as helping child welfare service providers in Washington more easily access information, coordinate care and evaluate their performance.

Returning to Seattle — yes, it’s at a creative fork in the road; and, yes, this juncture is the result of big breakthroughs, big opportunities and big innovative successes. But the go-forward answer is not less innovation. It is more accessible and inclusive innovation — democratic innovation.

This will require continued conversations about how innovation affects family-wage jobs, homelessness, affordable housing and food access as well as how innovation can help us make gains and improve quality of life in these critical areas.

Indeed, innovation doesn’t have to create or exacerbate social problems — it can actually help mitigate and solve social problems.

That’s the Seattle way, and it’s distinctly different from the way that other technology centers in the United States think, feel and operate.

So, if we keep focusing on our community’s future — in addition to its future well being — I’m confident and convinced that the innovative path forward for the Puget Sound region will remain prosperous, shared, sustainable and diverse.

That, in itself, will be a notable 21st century breakthrough.

The University of Washington believes that nurturing boundless innovation and creativity empowers students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners to create a world of good. Through the Innovation Imperative, the UW is creating inclusive solutions to society’s grand challenges. This article is one in a series written for CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit

Vikram Jandhyala is Vice Provost for Innovation at the University of Washington, Executive Director of CoMotion, and Professor and former Chair in the Department of Electrical Engineering. This article originally appeared in GeekWire.