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Innovation Insights: Utilization versus availability

Richard Cullatta shared an image similar to this one of an unfished building.  With it, he highlighted that any citizen would see an unfinished building and immediately feel the need to finish it.  But what about those programs in our cities we cannot see that are unfinished? One example Cullatta said, is that “31 million Americans in the last 20 years have partially completed degrees.” If one looks at community colleges, about 50% of students don’t finish their degrees. His point was that having educational infrastructure was meaningless if people don’t use it to graduate.

Michael Curri shared his experience with fiber optic installations in the USA.  Fiber optic is popular in affluent suburbs but the key driver of economic success is medium-sized businesses, and they have been slow to adopt and utilize fiber optic.  

Curri said that he was brought in to help the North Georgia Network, which was just six months away from completing a $43M fiber installation. But the network only had an 18% “take rate.”  Business were not interested in the new service.  Curri surveyed them, and found that they did not understand the benefit of the new service. Many, in fact, viewed it as an expensive service with no clear and immediate return on investment.  Counter to many people’s intuition, the challenge wasn’t in getting the technology (fiber) to the companies. The real challenge was convincing companies to utilize the service. “Availability does not equal adoption and does not equal utilization” concluded Curri.

Innovation is defined in many ways, but one simple definition is “generation of new value.” The two key criteria are “new” and “value.” As part of the innovation course we teach at Harvard, we dedicate a lecture to the topic of invention versus innovation. We ask the students, approximately 60% of whom are from the sciences and engineering, to consider how invention without innovation provides little economic and societal value.

Innovation has become so intertwined with innovation that many couple the two as if they were one in the same.  The key to innovation, however, is the generation of new value – not new technology. Making technology and other services available does not lead to or ensure innovation. They may be requisite parts of the equation, but innovation requires delivered value.  These two examples show how some projects can provide the “something new,” but still fall short of capturing value. To truly be innovative, cities and all stakeholders need to focus on the end game of realizing value. Technology, infrastructure, and services that are underutilized only serve to drain our wallets, not enhance our cities.