Article: The power of innovation
21 April 2021 This interview appeared in The Place Brand Observer
Sirpa, innovation in the context of IPAs is one of the topics you are especially passionate about. Which kind of innovation are we currently experiencing in this field, and which would we perhaps need to make the work of investment promotion agencies easier, or more successful? First off, you touch upon an interesting point in your question “how to make the work of investment promotion agencies easier”. IPAs navigate in a complex matrix of government entities, the local industry ecosystem, the local residents, and on the other side you have foreign investors with various business mindsets and cultural backgrounds. In addition, the “product” that we promote and sell – the location – is not static. A place as a product is the culmination of its people. Its economic and political framework, as well as its image and perception with potential investors, can change. Think Brexit. That is why I think, “easy” is not in the vocabulary of an FDI professional. But at the same time, in order to be successful as an IPA in this complex environment, it is essential to innovate existing strategies and service offerings. As the saying goes: “simplicity does not precede complexity but follows it.” And that is exactly what I am interested in when I talk about innovation in economic development. How can we achieve simplicity in this complex environment that we operate in as FDI professionals and be successful in attracting foreign investors? So when I talk about innovation I mean how IPAs as organisations can become more innovative. And I believe by bringing in and training your teams in innovation techniques you can achieve simplicity for your organisation as well as for your customer, the investor, and provide the best customer experience along the entire site selection journey. Currently, there is a need to innovate how to better engage investors digitally. This of course has been triggered by the COVID-19 crisis. As the founder of The Location Lab, can you tell us how design thinking helps locations with regard to economic development? Design Thinking or Service Design follows a human-centred approach and is a fast-paced innovation methodology. It has been applied by all kinds of industries by now, outside of the design industry where it originated. And I think it is the perfect fit for FDI. The decisions on where to locate a company are made by CEOs and board members, and more often than we want to admit are based on a personal experience, in addition to all the spreadsheet analysis that goes with it. Using Design Thinking allows IPAs to really understand the investors’ needs and step into their shoes and start designing an IPA strategy and service offerings with this perspective and mindset. Once this switch happens, it is a powerful tool and can also be learned by everyone. Everyone can be creative. I personally discovered it a few years back in New York City, where I also started The Location Lab idea. While working with various EDOs and IPAs at the time, I noticed how stuck some were in how they did things. And there are not many educational offerings for FDI professionals available for continuing education that is tailored to their needs. Then I came across this methodology and I started The Location Lab as a community and learning platform for economic developers and place branders to collaborate and innovate together. We also offer design thinking workshops through our partners, if someone wants to dive deeper into the matter. The next one we plan will be at the SelectUSA summit in June. As Director of Investment Promotion at Switzerland Global Enterprise, what does a typical day look like? A typical day at Switzerland Global Enterprise is that no project is like the one before. My work is extremely manifold. But my focus is on technology within our investment promotion strategy and that we have developed and implemented last year. Rather than focusing on traditional industry sectors we looked at what emerging tech fields Switzerland is strong in and where does Switzerland offer an advantage to foreign investors, and we identified 5 tech fields that we now actively promote. In addition, I oversee FDI projects from 12+ countries. And of course, we have an innovation culture in all that we do, we walk the talk every day. Which aspects of your work do you find the most challenging – and which the most rewarding? Let’s start with the most rewarding. For me, the most rewarding aspect is to have successfully accompanied a company in setting up in Switzerland. I really enjoy engaging with different businesses, each has its very specific needs for expansion. The most challenging I find is developing an innovative strategy within this complex matrix that I mentioned earlier. But I like a good challenge and with the right mindset, every challenge can be turned into an opportunity. What trends do you see in FDI given the changing global environment such as protectionism from major economies even before the pandemic and more recently a surge in remote work? We must address these global trends from a company perspective. Remote work for example was already happening before the pandemic (i.e. digital nomads) and has only been accelerated. It is now a more common business practice by most companies since the pandemic. And even though we see a strong digital push, I believe that we are social beings and FDI is a people business. Digital will not replace everything; it can only support certain aspects of our work life. There are two trends that stick out for me: the first is that companies need certainty in times of uncertainty. Setting up a new entity is a large investment and commitment. Secondly, finding the right talent is key for companies, and this requires agility to bring together the best teams for a specific company project in a location fast. Locations that can provide both – stability and agility – will be the winners for new projects in the future. Are there any regions, or countries around the world whose approach to attracting investors you have found especially innovative or useful as examples to follow? I am a big fan of Nordic countries. They do an excellent job in innovating their service offerings. Finland for example launched a program on the talent attraction side with a competition to visit Helsinki for 3 months as a tech entrepreneur and work from there to experience first-hand how life in Helsinki is. I think this is a brilliant and simple talent attraction idea. Finding talent is the number one location criteria for investors, especially for tech companies.