Outside Gate City. Photo by Mary Trigiani.

Five years ago, I had just re-entered Virginia after years in other places. I came across the  website of the Virginia Municipal League and found this. 

An article written in the early 1930s by Newport News Mayor Samuel R. Buxton, the first  president of the league, spelled out what the founders of the organization hoped to accomplish.  …Buxton explained that in 1905, when the league was founded, the progress and development  of Virginia was impeded by sectional selfishness and independence. “The great Southwest  (Virginia) was the big bad wolf of whom the other sections of the state, from a political and  economic stand-point, stood in awe,” Buxton wrote. 

This had such an impact on me that I’ve been carrying it in my wallet ever since. It is a reminder  of the rich history – and contribution – of a place that became home when I was a child. It is a  lesson in the impermanence of fortune and the unpredictability of power shifts. And for the now sleeping wolf, 90 years later, it is a call to action. 

Mayor Buxton’s observation was meant to unite the towns and cities of the Commonwealth  around common goals of better administration and legislation, for the greater glory of Virginia.  Today, while our nation’s counties and communities often help one another, the name of the  game remains competing with one another for the money. As the nation and its states seek to  right the pandemic-ridden ship via huge investments in infrastructure, getting at the money is  the first order of business in the bursting-at-the-seams field of economic development. 

In Virginia’s Southwest, despite the efforts of many good people, mammoth taxpayer investment  spanning at least five decades has not written a contemporary industrial calling card. As a  result, careers – the linchpin of American life – are eluding the region, forcing a significant  portion of native talent to seek fulfillment and prosperity elsewhere.  

This time, with the coming financial bonanza, we must do something different. 

McKinsey & Co. partners Erik Roth and Laura Furstenthal study innovation. They have distilled,  into a pretty basic formula, what it takes to get real results from any investment in innovation.

And while their focus is the corporate setting, the formula stands out as relevant to public sector  investment. 

Laura Furstenthal of McKinsey: We have found that every successful innovation throughout  history has come at the intersection of three lenses: an unmet customer need, or the who; a  technology that generates a solution, or the what; and a business model that enables you to  monetize that solution, which is the how. Another way to think about it is to ask yourself the three questions. First, does what you are doing matter? Will customers benefit from it? Second,  can you build it, and what technologies do you need to do that? And third, will it win? Is there an  opportunity for the innovation to take on a market? Because all of these lenses are required for successful innovation, the best way to generate new concepts is to collide them in a very  structured and purposeful way. 

Broken down in this manner, innovation is digestible. In Virginia’s rural regions, such as  Southwest, the next era of macro innovation can begin with micro-innovating our infrastructures  in economic and workforce development.  

Pull experienced business leaders into the regional management of the looming public spend.  This includes deliberations with legislators. Without creating more agencies or expanding staffs,  allocate existing resources and teams to a joint, and ultimately ephemeral, effort to decide what  is significant and to outline the most streamlined path to producing results. This includes  integrating agencies and folding them into a new playbook. 

Build a workforce that is an undeniable competitive advantage. Every employer in Southwest  knows that their star players’ secret sauce is a concoction of work ethic, workplace curiosity,  and a contentment with rural life, all of which constitute a perfect balance with their urban peers.  If we want to send a message to employers that they will find a rare type of employee in  Virginia’s Southwest, then we must package our secret sauce in contemporary skills that deliver world-class performance. Invest not in ad hoc programming but in existing academic institutions,  at every level, to prepare people for the lives they want. Then amplify the value this creates for  taxpaying businesses. 

If we in Southwest find we do not agree about what is significant, or if even a few decide they  want to sustain today’s infrastructure for redistributing wealth, then we must reconsider asking  for more investment from our fellow Virginians and Americans. However, if we sincerely want to  make a renaissance, the “we don’t need anyone new here, we’ve done it this way for years”  mindset must give way to designing a path to innovation that invites the bold and the  challenging. Delivering a return on investment is in the real DNA of Virginia’s Great Southwest,  which has everything it takes to awe, once again. 

Mary Trigiani is an executive, communicator and commentator who resides in Southwestern Virginia and serves as a community advisor to Cardinal News. Formerly based in Silicon Valley,  San Francisco and Chicago, Mary returned to her Appalachian roots in 2016. She is a member of the community advisory board of Cardinal News.