The Innovation Imperative

February 2, 2017

Exploring Inclusive Solutions to Disruption

IMG_0075Ken Denman made the stakes plain right from the start. “Innovation never sleeps,” he said. “Nobody is safe.” Denman is a venture partner with Sway Ventures. He was speaking to more than 200 people in Kane Hall as part of a panel for the fifth in a series of CoMotion Innovation Chats. Joining him were Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, and Jim Hargrove, a former state senator from Hoquiam, on the Olympic Peninsula. Their topic: “Exploring Inclusive Solutions to Disruption.”

The provocative and stimulating conversation was moderated by Vikram Jandhyala, executive director of CoMotion and vice president for Innovation Strategy at the UW. Jandhyala started the evening by offering the business definition of disruption: an innovation, like the steam engine, that fundamentally changes the way a business is run, upending old market and value networks, and even rendering them obsolete. But, he added, on the other side of that definition are the people whose lives have been disrupted. How do we help them make their way in the aftermath?

From there, the three panelists approached the topic from their various perspectives. Denman spoke from the standpoint of one who is in the disruptive vanguard. Emotient, the startup for which he was CEO, specialized in artificial-intelligence technology that could read a person’s facial expressions and gauge their emotions. (Apple recently acquired the company.) But even as someone who specializes in figuring out how people feel, Denman knows technologists have work to do in that regard. “We’ve done a terrible job of communicating,” he said. “We really have to get our game up.” As a CEO, though, he had a strong belief in the power of people. “There might be some short windows of pain,” he said, “but over longer periods of time, we figure things out.”

Hargrove, on the other hand, spoke as one who has been on the receiving end of disruption. During his long tenure in the state Senate, when he represented Grays Harbor, Jefferson and Clallam counties, he watched as the region’s timber industry withered and the number of saw mills dropped from 40 to four. Although technological advances certainly contributed to timber’s demise, Hargrove was more concerned with the reach of government regulation. “From our perspective, out in rural timber country, disruption from technology is kind of minor compared to what the government does,” he said. What was needed, he argued, are nuanced, regionally-specific political legislation, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach that seems to play well in urban centers.

Cauce sat between Hargrove and Denman, literally and figuratively, as a person who has had to adapt to disruption while also in a way facilitating it. “Universities are uniquely positioned,” she said, “with their obligation to be both timeless and timely.” The nature of employment is going through a period of upheaval. People will hold several jobs throughout their lifetime, rather than having a single career for 40 years. The skills they learn in college, therefore, have to be durable yet flexible. It was question of foresight and ethics. “The speed of change is rapid,” she said. “You have to think about the consequences. When you build new things, it’s good to do them in partnerships.”

But if each speaker pointed out the challenges that come with disruption, they also highlighted possible solutions. Denman argued that companies should receive financial incentives to build factories in more rural areas of the state, so residents there don’t feel so left behind. Hargrove, for his part, wanted to see more local opportunities for higher education, so students in his district could study something that would help them get a job in the area. And Cauce pledged help along those lines, promising to reach out to the administration of Grays Harbor College and start work on just such a program. “I’ll get on the phone and give them a call,” she said.