A Summary of the Thames River Story of Place

Planning for the Thames River Innovation Places initiative began with an exploration of the qualities that make our region distinctive. Using a methodology known as Story of Place, the team worked with the Regenesis Group to develop a deep understanding of the context of the Thames River drawn from natural history, human history, and current conditions in order to discover recurring patterns. This approach helped identify innovation pursuits that build on and reinforce the region’s character and are therefore likely to be both successful and authentic.

Landscape Context

Geologically, the southeastern CT region is defined by the churn of the tides. The region was formed when proto-Africa and proto-America collided, crushing the small continent of Avalonia between them, and then pulled apart again. The land folded like an accordion, then stretched and rifted, creating the fractured geological structure that underlies the southeastern corner of Connecticut today. The resulting landmass of southeastern CT is literally a different continent from the rest of the state.

These initial waves of earth were then accentuated by waves of ice as glaciers carved out lakes and river valleys, and waves of water which formed a complex saw-tooth coastline. Both human and ecological systems have adapted to take advantage of this landscape of compression, complexity, and continual change.

Pattern One: Continuous Differentiating

Among the adaptive patterns discerned from this research, one particularly stood out: Continuous Differentiating. As a port city, colonial New London became a place where diverse cultures and peoples met. During the Whaling era, sailors arrived from all over Europe, the New World, Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Arctic, making it one of the most diverse cities in the world. Each subsequent economic wave, from provisioning the West Indies to the development of Electric Boat and Pfizer, has introduced new immigrant workers bringing new cultural experiences to the region.

The municipality itself differentiated as Groton split from New London, Groton city divided from the Town of Groton, and Waterford divided from New London. As with so much of Connecticut, each community, as it achieves enough strength, differentiates itself from neighboring communities.

Pattern Two: Just Enough Structuring to Achieve Critical Mass

A second adaptive pattern offers a useful counterbalance to all of this differentiating: Just Enough Structuring to Achieve Critical Mass. Although diversity in a system can be a source of strength, it can also be a source of fragmentation in the absence of a larger structure. For example, although the fledgling U.S. lacked the resources to form its own Navy, by providing privateers operating out of New London with letters of mark the U.S. was able to provide just enough structure to quickly assemble a fleet out of a number of individual actors.

Today we observe this pattern manifesting as a culture of strong personal agency and a creativity in getting things done with limited resources. This has been the engine for the founding of a plethora of community groups, foundations, churches, and nonprofit organizations. In recent years, the Heritage Park has brought together diverse small sites on both sides of the river to create one world-class destination. Both the CURE Innovation Commons and Spark Makerspace provide just enough structure to help startups gain access to resources and collaborators.

While the scattered historical sites along the Thames River are not a regional draw individually, by connecting them into one “park” with a water taxi, the Thames River Heritage Park achieves critical mass.

Pattern Three: Coalescing Around Shared Large Aims

The third adaptive pattern allows this community to create the “just enough structuring” needed to take advantage of the “continuous differentiating”. We identify this as Coalescing Around Shared Large Aims, referring to the larger collective purposes that must be in place if fragmented communities are to come together to “punch above their weight.”

John Winthrop, Jr. founded the New London colony to become a global center for the study of Alchemy. From the outset, this community focused on innovating in the fields of metallurgy, medicine, agriculture, and education. Each of the subsequent institutions that took root here had a similar higher aim that made it coherent and meaningful. For example, whaling provided light to the cities of Europe, and today the Coast Guard, Navy Submarine Base, and Electric Boat protect the nation’s coastal waters.

Larger Purpose of Thames River

We used these patterns to help  articulate a vocation for the Thames River, a role that it is uniquely called to play in service to other communities in Connecticut and along the eastern seaboard. We arrived at the concept of A Center for Growing a Collaborative Innovation Culture. By placing focus on innovation culture through collaborating rather than on specific innovations, the team chose to work on making innovation a consciously cultivated capability and to spread it across every sector of the community by fostering synergy through working together. This requires an approach that integrates education, policy, entrepreneurialism, investment, and fostering community pride and identity. The need for ongoing integration among these diverse cultural dimensions has led to the founding of a core team drawn from across the region and committed to continuing this effort into the future.