Monday, February 7, 2011

Creating environments that encourage innovation

Back in the 1990s, I had a job in a not-for-profit that gave me unlimited access to the agency's computer system and an IT director who taught me how to extract data from it. My office was located three floors away from the executive offices, so I was not the first person the higher-ups thought of when an assignment needed handing out. I spent many afternoons playing with data, following ideas, seeing what, if anything, turned up. Often, nothing did. Every once in a while, though, my analysis showed something that I couldn't explain. I called peers and spent a lot of time figuring out what was different. We shared our ideas and kept going. I have never been so happy in a job.

I was reminded of this experience reading "Where Good Ideas Come From," by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books, 246 pages). It turns out I was enjoying several conditions Johnson identifies as necessary for innovation.

What are those conditions? A platform that allows dense networks to overlap and connect, sharing resources or forcing adaptation. Exposure to other ideas. Sharing of information. Time for ideas or hunches to develop. Serendipity. The possibility -- no, the experience -- of error. What Johnson calls "exaptation" -- taking  technology or a resource from one area and using it in another. Johnson's example is Johannes Gutenberg, who borrowed wine press technology when he was figuring out how to get print onto paper. Reading the book reminded me of using Excel to develop a form (to be printed out on paper, filled out, and filed, of course) back in the late 1980s.

"Where Good Ideas Come From," is useful and enlightening. It is also beautifully written (save for an unconvincing final chapter), with illuminating examples layered into the text. In addition to Gutenberg, a coral reef appears and reappears both as example and metaphor, as do coffeehouses, networks, and cities.

We are not all going to be Thomas Edison or Tim Berners-Lee or Johannes Gutenberg. But we can all do our jobs a little more creatively, and possibly a little bit better. The book's lessons can be put to use by the largest corporations, by students and teachers, by small non-profits, and by individuals who want a creative environment. The book's final sentences (with my annotations in Roman type) are pure poetry:

The patterns are simple, but followed together, 
they make for a whole 
that is wiser than the sum of its parts.
Go for a walk;
cultivate hunches;
write everything down, but keep your folders messy (see chapter 3);
make generative mistakes ("error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions");
take on multiple hobbies (so you can borrow, or exapt, or make adaptive reuse of other ideas);
frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks (so you can be exposed to other ideas);
follow the links;
let others build on your ideas (information is meant to be shared!);
borrow, recycle, reinvent.

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