Staying Open-Minded

Diane Parro, chief innovation officer for the City of Davis, on how government can support business

Back Q&A Dec 5, 2016 By Rich Ehisen

Over the last few years, a growing number of states and cities have created offices designed to foster job growth and economic development by helping private sector companies with innovative ideas find their footing. We sat down with Diane Parro, chief innovation officer for the City of Davis, to talk about the city’s role in this process.

What does an innovation officer do?

In Her Own Words

— Diane Parro

My best trait:

I am very optimistic but also diligent and hardworking enough to help accomplish good things as well as dream about them

Living person I most admire:

I really admire Michelle Obama because I share her passion for food justice and food literacy

My proudest career moment:

Now — all my varied career experiences have held me to this defining moment in which I have the perfect chance to serve the community I love

My biggest frustration:

I wish the City of Davis had enough money to do all the fantastic work we envision

If I could have any other profession, I would be:

Keeper of the Stanley Cup

I am sure every single person who works in an innovation office will give you a completely different answer. When it was initiated here a few years back, I think it was a completely different focus than it is now. Our Mayor Bob Davis defines innovations as “not novelty and not invention; it’s trying to change the world in a different way.” So innovation for me is very much an attitude of staying open-minded to new ideas. The day-to-day work of my office is to very much be the connection between city government and the business community. I try to be just about everywhere I can to make sure companies know that the government does care very much about business.

Is innovation more about process or technology?

Innovation for me is very much an attitude of staying open-minded to new ideas. Very innovative things happen that aren’t actually either a thing or a process. The two innovation centers we’ve considered here — which involved the university, the city, the county and the landowners — were physical spaces where the environment would be designed for what we would consider an innovative attitude, not just a new process or technology.

There have been two innovation centers proposed in Davis. What is their status?

The proposed Mace Ranch Innovation Center was withdrawn by the developers, so that is largely unknown by the city at the moment. We do know we certainly would like to work closely with them in the future because we liked that project very much. The Nishi Gateway Project was voted down by our constituency and that’s the rule of the people. The project was supported 5-0 by our council and we very much hoped for that to pass the scrutiny of our voters, but it didn’t. That was, of course, disappointing because it would have been nice to create something new that’s very welcoming, that says to the world and to the region and to the people just across the street, ‘Yes we have a place for you. We want you to be here.’ In that way it is an opportunity lost, but if our community didn’t embrace it then there wasn’t going to be a good outcome anyway. I will say that it was a close enough vote to make us hopeful that something will come forward there again.

Change can certainly be very difficult and very frightening. But change is also inevitable. We can do it intentionally or unintentionally. If we let it be unintentional, then we risk letting other people decide that these opportunities will go just across the border to our neighboring cities.”

Government talks about supporting innovation, but then often ends up creating a regulatory environment that does just the opposite. What can and should government be doing to truly foster innovative companies in their communities?

Regulation is very complicated and I’m not sure I have a good answer for that one. But one thing we’ve done is to push adaptive reuse. Right now we’re sitting in a Victorian mansion [the City-owned Dresbach Hunt-Boyer Mansion]. Someone before me had the brilliant idea that it could be an incubator because they thought innovative people like to be downtown, they like to be next to coffee shops and they want to be close to campus. So yes, let’s give them the use of the whole Victorian mansion. That’s huge and we hear more and more about communities finding similar spaces. Woodland found a space for their own business incubator, AgStart, that’s fantastic. And there is Jumpstart Davis, a networking group that meets every month at a bar near this office. They’re always startups, it costs nothing and it’s always packed. I always show up … I walk around and shake hands with people and ask what they are working on. They are excited to see that someone from the city thinks their idea is cool. It’s really critical that I have the support of my council and the city manager to be out there in the world and in the region. If you’re going to say you’re innovative and you support innovation, you have to be out there.

We’ve seen tension in San Francisco over what some feel is tech companies like Google dominating the city so much that they are changing the very things that people love about SF and harming the quality of life for those not in the tech industry. Are you concerned about something similar happening in Davis?

Well, change can certainly be very difficult and very frightening. But change is also inevitable. We can do it intentionally or unintentionally. If we let it be unintentional, then we risk letting other people decide that these opportunities will go just across the border to our neighboring cities. But I also wouldn’t say the issue is so much fear of new or different kinds of businesses coming here, but people wanting to keep what we already have.

Efforts are being made to lure companies away from the Bay Area, L.A. or other high-cost parts of the state and country. For your purposes, is it better to have a company come from somewhere else or to have one that starts here?

I don’t think one is better than the other. We’ve met with companies that [Greater Sacramento Economic Council] was working on bringing to our region and they thought very highly of Davis. They came here because of UC Davis; they looked at a whole map of the country and said, ‘Wow, we know this technology is here, we want to be close to that.’ So in some ways that’s one of our greatest gifts. Other places aren’t as lucky to have that amazing attraction right next door. A lot of the amazing things that might come are maybe not glamorous — they may only be two or three people, and maybe won’t generate a ton of revenue to the city — but we’re focused on it. We support that because we know that’s a future. Startups aren’t bringing in a fortune to the city, but they are an amazing investment in other ways. It would be great to have somebody coming out of the City of Davis doing something incredible, whether they made the City a dime or not. So again it is how to strike that balance between intentionally adding things we know fit our city with the concerns of our community. Maybe they’ll see that benefit and maybe that’s a long, long, long game. Thankfully a bunch of us are in it for the long haul.

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