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To innovate in uncertain times, think like an urbanist

Cross-pollination can impact these three challenges to innovation.

To innovate in uncertain times, think like an urbanist
[Source photo: Maxiphoto/Getty Images]

The sudden collapse of Silicon Valley Bank has thrown the startup and banking worlds into disarray. This latest crisis, along with other geopolitical challenges, mass layoffs, and fears of a recession, has forced many companies to scale back on investments in innovation.

To succeed over the long term, however, companies must continue to innovate even during uncertain times. But how? For advice, they should take cues from people they might not think of: urbanists, the people who plan, build, and improve the cities we live in.

Cities embody humanity’s innovative and resilient spirit. Jane Jacobs, a luminary in the field, believed that cities should reflect life’s dynamism. Before her, the prevailing view was that where one lived, worked, and shopped needed to be distinct from each other. Jacobs’s approach, unorthodox during the 1960s, focused on people, public spaces, and mixed-use development coming together in neighborhoods. These neighborhoods should encourage the movement of its residents and foster the cross-pollination of people and ideas. This, in turn, would lead to strong social networks, community, and resilience, so that when times were tough, the city would endure.

Today, the nonprofit I founded, Tulsa Innovation Labs, borrows lessons from urbanists like Jacobs in our work developing Tulsa’s tech economy. I have found that the principle of cross-pollination, in particular, can help businesses innovate and stay competitive. Consider these three challenges to innovation to see how cross-pollination helps.


In tech, specific domains, such as cyber and blockchain, have been understood as distinct. Those borders are quickly crumbling. Emerging technologies are arising from these new intersections. For example, ChatGPT has elevated the user experience with predictive text, integrating and leveraging AI, machine learning, and big data. Products like this seem revolutionary. But as much as tech is about creating something new, it’s also about bringing together existing capabilities. New technologies are often just around the corner from one another and need someone who can see down the block to bring them together.

With support from my organization, University of Tulsa and Team8 are partnering on a doctoral fellowship to drive commercializable research. PhD students work with industry scientists from the Tel Aviv-based cyber venture creation company, and faculty from across University of Tulsa on projects that cut across traditional disciplines. Projects include building a trustworthy AI framework for smart grid cyberattack detection and using machine learning to predict anomalies in cryptocurrency networks.

Businesses should establish applied research labs at universities, where interdisciplinary and cross-institutional teams can devise new applications for existing tools. These labs are often more cost effective than corporate R&D teams and can yield rich results because of their diverse set of experts.


The talent market has never been more competitive, and for companies to succeed beyond the next quarter and well into this century, they must build cross-sector alliances and invest in talent together.

A mayoral initiative in New York called Tech Talent Pipeline (TTP) is training the next generation of data analytics talent. TTP encourages companies to engage throughout their training bootcamps. Instead of merely hiring graduates on the back end, TTP enlists companies like Google and Netflix to help build curricula on the front end. Employer partners can also volunteer in the classroom, support underserved students, and hire apprentices.

Businesses need to step beyond their immediate backyard and partner more with universities, community colleges, and training bootcamps as well as the governments, philanthropies, and nonprofits that often support them. Requiring more in-kind support than capital, this approach enables companies to nurture talent that meets their needs and helps create a stable pipeline.


Thanks to COVID-19, tens of millions of people now work from home every day. This can appear far from an urbanist’s ideal: the benefits of a literal and metaphorical neighborhood disappearing. But as a study from Tracking Happiness shows, remote work makes employees happier by up to 20%. On the other hand, in the Remote Work Culture Insights survey, 90% of executives said their remote teams lacked connection with one another. People don’t want to sacrifice flexibility for community, and without community, how can companies innovate?

Leaders should consider what will draw their talent back to the office, even in a hybrid fashion. Childcare can relieve a major burden. Disney and Patagonia provide subsidized, onsite childcare, and Etsy offers a pre-tax flexible spending account for dependent care, including daycare and after school programs.

The shift to remote work has also led businesses to rethink their real estate needs. Amazon is slowing construction of its new Virginia office while Facebook is shrinking its Silicon Valley footprint. Instead of building expensive campuses, with the latest bells and whistles, businesses should provide meaningful benefits like childcare that enable people to work in person.

Disruptive times offer new opportunities, and bumps along the way can lead to new discoveries. As Jacobs would say, experimentation and setbacks are part of innovation and cities alike. Even during lean times, leaders must stay focused on building a culture of cross-pollination. Doing so will enable their companies to weather these and future storms.

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Nicholas Lalla is founder and managing director of Tulsa Innovation Labs. More

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