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Editorial: Hawai‘i industries can reduce ‘brain drain’ with ‘co-opetition’

By Peter Dames, Mike McCartney, Alan Oshima and Brennon Morioka

For the past 10 years since the Great Recession, the U.S. has experienced the longest period of economic expansion in history. Unemployment hovers at low rates throughout the nation. Incomes are on the rise, markets are happy. Here in Hawai‘i, where our industries depend on these economic indicators, things are ok.

But for many of our friends, neighbors and children, ok has not been good enough. With no proof things will be better, young adults and long-established families have been moving away from Hawai‘i for better job options.

Data collected by the National Science Foundation show Hawai‘i ranks among the top states in investment in education, but at the bottom in investment in research and development. We tell our children to study sciences and the arts to find jobs that allow them to create and invent. Those jobs do exist, but they are not in Hawai‘i.

The “brain drain” has continued for 20 years. The loss of individuals who want a better quality of life is felt at work and at home, and it is long past time we reverse this trend.

We’ve spent so long trying to figure out what to do about our shrinking pie — of people, business and ideas — that we’re at risk of forgetting how to make pie.

We still have big goals and ambitions: 100% clean, renewable energy by 2045; food self-sufficiency; and rethinking what paradise means for the next generation of innovators. But instead of accepting the status quo or spending time peeking over the wall of our island state to see how our neighbors around the world solve their problems, we should spend more time innovating at home.

As a state, we have the knowledge, access to technology and other resources to take charge of our future, but we may be our own worst enemy. We often feel we are not good enough and may even shun advice from outside our state.

What will it take to catapult Hawai‘i forward? Business and government need a new mindset. Rather than competing or being at odds with each other, we need a new way of thinking that intentionally disrupts our artificial silos. Rather than seeing each other as competitors, we can retrain ourselves to look at each other as collaborators.

No single organization owns all of the necessary skills to thrive in our evolving world. No one technology holds the solutions to everyone’s problems. We gain skills and develop solutions by sharing.

We need to develop a sense of “co-opetition,” a collaborative cross-pollination of strengths and knowledge between would-be competitors. Co-opetition is not a foreign concept in the islands. Lokahi and laulima, working together with a singular purpose for the common good, is part of our language and way of life. We need to re-infuse these values in our organizations — along with some strategic investment — to create a state ecosystem that results in better jobs for higher-performing individuals and organizations with bigger aspirations and a more resilient local economy.

Innovation through collaboration always has been, and always will be, at the heart of what makes Hawai‘i unique in the world. Our home is a spring of talent, ingenuity and world-changing ideas. If we do not build an environment to channel it, we’ll continue to experience a brain drain for another 20 years. Hawai‘i can lead change in the world, but we must change our home first, and we can only do that by working together.

Peter Dames is Executive Vice President of Technology, Marketing and Mobility at Servco; Mike McCartney is Director of the Hawai‘i Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism; Alan Oshima is President/CEO of Hawaiian Electric. Brennon Morioka, Dean of the University of Hawai‘i College of Engineering, co-signed this piece. They all will be speaking on “co-opetition” at the Techforce Hawai‘i Conference & Expo on Sept. 26.