Voices of Digital Communities

The Cultural DNA Inside an Innovation Engine

I am prepared for mental boggling because of the way that innovation in Oulu is driven by its cultural DNA.

by / February 22, 2012

Biology was one of my favorite sciences in secondary school.  I liked it because it was descriptive rather than mathematical.  It was not about applying abstract rules to make numbers behave in peculiar ways.  It was about how real things fit together.  Or, in the case of those frogs we all dissected, how they came apart. 

If you have read anything about life sciences research lately, you know that this view of biology is very old school.  Since we figured out how to sequence DNA and to data-mine the resulting flood of information, we have been uncovering unbelievably complex chains of action and reaction at the microscopic level. 

And every time we think we understand the pieces of the puzzle, each piece seems to have within it yet another complex chain of action and reaction.  The deeper we look, the more we see.  The sheer interconnectedness of it all is mind-boggling. 

At the end of March, I will visit Oulu, Finland, one of our Top Seven Intelligent Communities of 2012.  And I am fully prepared to have my mind boggled. 

Not because Oulu is a world leader in life sciences research.  It is a remarkable place when it comes to technology innovation but its talents mostly lie elsewhere.  I am prepared for mental boggling because of the way that innovation in Oulu is driven by its cultural DNA.   

You function as a living, breathing whole in part because each cell in your body contains all of the genetic instructions for making a new you. That is pretty much how innovation seems to take place in this mid-sized city only 200 km south of the Arctic Circle. 

Whether the project is a broadband network or a tech incubator, success is built on intensive collaboration among partners in government, business and institutions.  In project after project, the story is the same.  It is as though the partners are cells in a single organism, each carrying the whole of Oulu’s cultural DNA. 

I’m sure they have their inter-organizational food fights and inevitable jockeying for position and influence.  That’s how cultures work.  But this culture of collaboration has enabled Oulu to ride through successive waves of economic change and keep coming out on top.  I look forward to seeing it, and I hope that this particular form of biology has not gone beyond my ability to describe how it works.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.