The Chamber has announced the goal that Lafayette will become a Community of Innovators in 15 years. To begin to discuss this, it might help to look at some other 'innovation generators' for ideas.

(To read Part I of this essay, click here.)

Joseph N. Abraham MD, Lafayette LA, University of Lousiana

For ideas about innovative communities, there is no shortage of cities we can look at, and we can learn a great deal from reading the books of Richard Florida:  The Rise of the Creative Class, The Flight of the Creative Class, and Cities and the Creative Class.  We'll come back to those in the next essay, but I want to start with something smaller, something we have all seen and can understand:  families.  Particularly, families that produce innovators.

Cities that we can use as role models are going to be huge things with too many factors affecting them (when you think about it, even 'little' Lafayette is too large to easily understand).  Compounding the problem, there are probably only a handful of cities in the world that most of us could agree on as role models of innovation. So to look at other cities, we have to distill out key concepts from a tremendous number of factors; and we only have a very small number of communities to consider. Obviously, that makes it extremely difficult.

Families, on the other hand, are smaller and more numerous than candidate cities. We can all find a large number of families, right here in Lafayette, who have succeeded in producing people who think innovatively. When we look at these families, of course, what we largely want to look at are the parents. Parents are the leaders of their own microcommunities.

The first thing we see by looking at families who produce innovators, is that very ordinary parents can produce innovators. To be sure, innovative parents tend to produce innovative children; but we all know of families—particularly among the rural Cajuns & Creoles of south Louisiana-- where the parents are not particularly remarkable in their own educational attainments, but who have produced highly creative, extremely well-educated children. If you doubt this, go to any event at one of the local schools, and meet the parents of the brightest children.  Among them will certainly be professionals and other 'successful' people, but there will also be a lot of people with high school educations, or less. Truth be told, many innovators would describe their own families as rather unremarkable, intellectually.

That leaves us with an interesting puzzle, and from it, a critical insight: if ordinary 'leaders' (parents) produce extraordinary thinkers (children), then where does innovative thinking come from? Clearly, it can't be heredity, or at least not heredity alone, or unremarkable parents wouldn't produce remarkable children. And it can't be cultural, or at least not culture that includes a high level of intellectual activity. So the innovative spirit in a child does not need to be shared with the parent.  That's very good news, because it means that any family-- and any community-- can imitate what we learn from these parents.  Any community can become a Community of Innovators.

So how do common parents & families produce uncommon children? Let me suggest it's not a question of what ordinary parents do.

It's a question of what they don't do.

Consider that good parents, parents who raise innovators, are 'nurturing' parents. Technically, 'to nurture' means nothing more than 'to feed', and that's not a bad metaphor to begin this discussion.

When human beings lived simpler lives, children needed little more than food to grow into a healthy adulthood. It's a bit of a miracle when you think about it. You put food in front of children, and they do a surprising amount of everything else, by themselves. They eat, and their bodies grow and mature into healthy adults. They play, and from it build strong, productive bodies. They simply listen to language-- or several-- and achieve mastery. They watch and mimic what the older people around them do, and gain many of the skills they need later in life. They even attempt to participate in family work, sometimes begging to do so, and learn what they will need to know as adults.

Think about that. Children don't need to be exercised, they don't need to study vocabulary and conjugation tables, they don't need lectures and drills on how to accomplish some very sophisticated tasks. They do it all by themselves. Like I said, it's a bit of a miracle.  Just nurture them; the rest of it, they largely do by themselves.

Unless, of course, they are discouraged from doing these things. Very important insight, that: discouragement is critical to these essays. 'Discouragement' comprises a large number of things, which unfortunately includes not only criticizing and punishing children, but also child neglect and child abuse.

You want to keep a child from growing strong? Don't allow them to play, or worse, punish them when they do. They will grow up timid and weak, and frightened of physical activity. Want to keep them from learning language? Keep them locked away from other people, and ridicule or punish them when they open their mouths, or whenever their use of the language isn't correct. You want to keep them from learning to perform important tasks? Humiliate them when they mimic the older people around them, don't let them participate in family activities; or again, punish them for these things. 

That is how you destroy a child.

Without these things, however-- without discouragement, criticism, neglect our abuse-- child just grow by themselves. Feed children, allow them do anything that isn't dangerous or rude; that's just about all it takes.  The rest of it they'll do largely by themselves.

Even more extraordinarily, and more importantly to this discussion, if you leave children alone they will discover and create new things.

Children play with language constantly, inventing words, creating songs and poems, even making up new sounds (which unfortunately tend to incorporate a lot of bodily noises). In doing so, they coin new words and phrases: there is a four year-old in my life who has informed me that I am a 'hootyhead', and that the evil Emperor from Star Wars had 'flightening' that came out of his hands.

Likewise, children will take toys and really, any items that they find-- including, if not watched constantly, their siblings' and parents' possessions-- and play with them and destroy them. Destroying things, unfortunately, is a great way to learn new uses for them, how much stress they can take, what holds them together, and how they work.

And in everything they do, children will try any and all combinations. 'Any' and 'all' are not exaggerations; if you doubt it, just let a young child pick out his/her own clothes some morning.

So as children play with toys and language and skills and everything, they create and discover new things.

They innovate.

I believe that it is in the nature of every healthy child to innovate. And yet, some families produce innovators, some do not; and some communities are innovative, and others are not. What do the innovative ones do?

They don't discourage their children, they don't discourage their adults. They don't discourage innovation. 

There's a little more to it than that, of course... but not much.  Good parents certainly discourage negative behaviors, mainly in the areas of manners and morals.  And they generally encourage their children in many ways.  Good parents, however, encourage their children in just about everything the kids attempt.

Here I want to refer to the previous essay, where I argued we can have a Community of Innovators in Lafayette, or we can say what Lafayette will look like in the future, but we can't do both.  Innovation is driven at the individual level, not the collective; no one determines for an innovator what he or she will do. If we want a Community of Innovators, we don't want to be too specific about what that will look like.

Good parents do exactly this.  They don't care what their children choose to do, they simply encourage them to do more of it, and to learn.  Also of importance here and in the near future: in the formative stages of their children's development, good parents are almost completely indifferent to the quality of the product. They praise their children generously for any effort.  That is key, and we will need it later.

But mainly, good parents largely just get out of their kids' way. I  strongly suspect that innovative communities do the same thing.  They don't so much encourage innovation, as they don't discourage it.   The key to a strong, innovative community, I believe, is the same for a strong, entrepreneurial community:  laissez faire as much as possible.

Or as Richard Florida says it, innovative communities are tolerant communities.  And Florida's work in this area will be the subject of the next essay.

We have now considered three concepts; everything else in these essays hinges on them. What is true for children, I believe is equally true for everyone.

1. Creativity is a natural condition of humanity.  As such, it need not be encouraged. Encouragement helps move things along, but it is not absolutely necessary.

2. Creativity can, however, be discouraged, it can be prevented. Creativity/innovation can be destroyed.

3. For reasons we will discuss as we go, these two concepts are already inherently understood within the traditional culture of Lafayette.  We don't need to add anything to Lafayette; we simply need to recognize what we already do. 

Which is a bit ironic.  Just as with innovators, we don't need to necessarily encourage Lafayette, so much as we simply need to protect it, to avoid discouraging it.

Get out of the way of innovators, and they will flourish.

Get out of Lafayette's way, and we will too.

(To continue reading in this series, click here.)