I was recently invited to join The Levin Institute as a Senior Fellow. The Levin Institute is a new, independent institute within the State University of New York (SUNY). It was established to train students, working professionals and organizations to live and work effectively in our emerging global environment. Its mission is succinctly captured in its tag line: Managing across borders and cultures.
The Levin Institute is located in a newly renovated landmark townhouse on 55th Street between Park and Lexington, in the heart of New York City. Its full name is The Neil D. Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce. It was founded by the State of New York to honor the memory of Neil David Levin, a former Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who was killed during the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
The Levin Institute is led by Garrick Utley, a former broadcast journalist with extensive experience in international affairs, who reported from more than 75 countries for more than 40 years. Mr. Utley’s Presidential message describes its missions thus:
"We are a new 21st Century academic model and enterprise that addresses key aspects and issues of globalization. We do this through developing new learning models, research and public engagement. We prepare individuals and institutions to learn, work and communicate across borders and cultures. As a free standing, system wide institute within the State University of New York (SUNY) we meld management school curricula with those of schools of international relations. The successful manager of the 21st Century will be defined by the ability to operate successfully across divisions of nationality, ethnicity, religion and languages as well as political, economic, legal and regulatory environments.
“Our research projects and studies include global talent (high end knowledge workers), China as an emerging, knowledge-driven economy and society, the growing influence of global corporations, global media and the impact of globalization on American society. Through our conferences and events, and leading-edge information and audio visual technology, we work to give new meaning to the concept of distance learning. One of our web sites, www.globalization101.org, is a leading platform for information and learning tools."
The second reason is its New York location. I have been thinking for a while about the opportunities for many regions around the world to do what Silicon Valley and the Boston area have done in becoming major innovation centers. The most interesting alternative innovation model I have found is that being pursued by Design London. Design London is based on the concept of a multi-disciplinary Innovation Triangle which blends design (represented by the Royal College of Art), engineering and technology (represented by Imperial College Faculty of Engineering), and the business and management of innovation (represented by Imperial's Business School).
I have been asking myself whether my own home area, New York, is such a global center of innovation, especially the New York metropolitan area or Tri-State region. In many ways, and over many decades, the answer was a resounding yes. For the first half of the 20th century, most of American business, finance, media and literature were invented in New York City.
But New York has been superseded in many areas over the past half-century. Why should I care? Some of the reasons are personal. This is where I have lived and worked since June of 1970. It is where my wife and I got married and our children were born. My own personal background - an immigrant whose native tongue is Spanish and whose parents’ native tongue was Yiddish - may be unusual in many parts of the US and the world, but blends in smoothly into New York’s melting pot.
The Tri-State region has been a leader in many industries - finance, media & entertainment, retail, pharmaceuticals, health care, communications and information technologies. But as we well know, past leadership is no guarantee of future success, especially when so many people are working really hard to help make their own regions become innovation leaders in their industry.
I worry that New York may be sitting on its 20th century laurels. New York cannot cede technology-based innovation to other regions better known for their commitment to advanced technologies. It must be a leader in the application of advanced technologies to transform its key industries, or else its leadership in industry after industry will dissipate over the decades. New York based universities must step up to help make this happen, as have Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT and Imperial College in their particular regions.
Nowhere has the need for innovation been more urgent than in the finance industry – arguably New York’s major industry. But nowhere is the failure of such innovation more apparent, as evidenced by our ongoing global financial crisis. Instead of working to re-invent the role of banking in our increasingly global, integrated financial system, we saw the creative energies of the best and brightest focused primarily on highly sophisticated financial engineering schemes. As we now know, these schemes did not turn out so well for the banks, their clients and investors, as well as for society at large, as should be the case in true innovation.
What can we say about the executives charged with overseeing the health of their financial companies, as well as those charged with overseeing the health of the overall financial systems? Were they overwhelmed by the complexity of the organizations they were supposed to lead? Perhaps, as often happens, they were trained to manage a kindler, gentler, slower-moving world and did not know how to manage the complex, intertwined, fast-changing organizations they actually led. They also lacked the tools that would have enabled them to analyze and model all the information at their disposal, which could possibly have helped anticipate the gathering storms. There is a dire need for such innovation in the management of 21st century financial systems.
Depending on how you count, the New York area is home to more than 20 million people, the largest such urban area in the US and among the largest in the world. It is arguably home to the largest concentration of global companies in the world. If any one region should reinvent what it means to manage globally integrated enterprises, it should happen here, where so many of them are headquartered. This will require massive innovation at all levels.
How do you best manage global processes, from HR and finance, to sales and logistics? Which parts of those processes should be handled in a global way to optimize efficiencies and quality, and which parts should be customized and adapted to different local conditions around the world? How do you anticipate and ameliorate the kinds of systemic failures we have seen in the finance industry, which will likely also happen in other industries as a result of their rising complexity and exposure to unpredictable events? How should we train the next generation of managers to help them better manage the rising complexity and unpredictability of their organizations?
These are some of the major questions that we are thinking through in the Levin Institute, as part of its mission to improve innovation and management across borders and culture. It is a particularly suitable mission for an institution whose home is in the center of one of the largest, most globally diverse populations in the world.
It is also a mission uniquely relevant to this moment in history. We stand at the inflection point of a major shift in the global economy and society – a shift that is equal parts technology, environment, economics, geopolitics and urbanization. The world needs the kind of innovation that the Levin Institute is aiming for – and that New York City has historically represented to the world.
This is a tough challenge, but as the song goes: "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere, It's up to you, New York, New York."