Missoula leaders adopt philosophy of “innovation” when problem solving

Grant Kier, president of the Missoula Economic Partnership, left, sits with University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, center, and Missoula Mayor John Engen. The three have applied the concept of innovation when applying new ideas to old problems. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Standing in a suit before an audience in Missoula last week, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar quoted a number of achieved artists and businesses leaders, though it was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones who best made his point.

“Everyone talks about rock these days, but the problem is, they forget to talk about the roll,” Bodnar said. “That’s a great concept for us when we think about innovation. We love to tell the story of innovation at a high level. But it manifests in the distinct, concrete, kind of messy details of the things we’re actually doing.”

Thinking outside the box to solve Missoula’s persistent challenges – and those in Montana as well – can be messy indeed, and not all good ideas are born to succeed.

But when Bodnar joined Missoula Mayor John Engen and Grant Kier, president of the Missoula Economic Partnership, on stage to discuss the philosophy of innovation at this week’s InnovateUM conference, they agreed that good ideas take teamwork, forward thinking and an element of risk.

“When we’re completely committed to doing business as usual, we’re determined to fail,” Kier said. “Our leadership in this community is exceptional because it knows we have to do things differently. It knows the problems that have faced us over and over again need new ways of being addressed.”

Talk of innovation alone can be esoteric and interpreted in any number of ways. Engen called it “squishy,” something that’s difficult to get your hands and mind around.

But even so, the principle of innovation has been warmly adopted by local government, the university’s new leadership and members of the community. And all of them are searching for new ways of solving old problems.

Last year’s event brought thinkers in from Finland who had developed an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” to solve one school’s lack of startup opportunities. This year, the conference zeroed in on other issues as it worked to blur the lines between campus and community.

The UM in InnovateUM actually stands for University and Missoula. Civic leaders like the term “One City, One University, One Community.”

“Successful communities need to be in the business of blurring lines and thinking about campus and community in a much different way,” Engen said. “Traditional boundaries don’t work any more. Not only do they not work, they’re not as fun.”

While applying a philosophical approach to lasting problems may make for good conversation, the outcome still requires tangible results. And in the wake of last year’s event, a number of initiatives have taken form.

Some are weighty, such as Missoula’s new bioscience cluster, or efforts at the city, the county and university to rid their energy portfolio of fossil fuels. Others are small but significant, such as Engen writing letters welcoming new UM students to Missoula, or the university moving its Presidential Lecture Series off campus to reach more people.

MEP is also casting its net a little wider than it has in the past. As Kier suggested, it will serve as the interface team to bridge local institutions, and it may start by moving its offices downtown.

“We’re moving MEP’s offices downtown and opening up more space so we can bring more members of the economic services development community on campus, off campus, so it’s easier for businesses to access them,” Kier said. “We won’t be a stronger community if we don’t bring that spirit of innovation into our practices, community wide.”

For the first time ever, the city also is chasing new grant opportunities. Working with the Broader Impacts Group and the Missoula Public Library, it recently applied for a National Institutes of Health grant, and while the grant hasn’t yet been awarded, Engen likes the city’s chances.

“We’ve never done anything like that before,” he said. “That brings millions of dollars to this community and for the first time we’d have an employee at the city of Missoula who is shared with UM, and we’ll open the door to the funding that comes from the NIH.”

This year, affordable housing also entered the discussion. An expert in new rules written into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that could be used to fund housing and other projects joined the conference.

No matter how it’s sliced, Engen said, innovation looks to provide opportunity.

“Innovation for me is about prosperity. Innovation is about making sure everyone in our community has a shot, and there’s a lot of people who don’t have a shot for a variety of reasons.

“When we work together and think about big ideas or small ideas, when we try to solve for problems large and small, we give more people a chance at a deep, meaningful life.”