Ideas and Innovation

Ideas are the wheels that make the world move. Adam Smith’s ideas on the division of labour and free markets led to the industrial revolution and Capitalism. Karl Marx’s ideas on the seed of self-destruction inherent in Capitalism led to Communism and the Soviet revolution. Charles Darwin’s idea of adaptation through evolution changed the way we now understand living beings. Tim Berners-Lee’s idea of a Worldwide Web made the entire world connected in a manner never possible earlier.

The following is an appreciation of a book called “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson. It is a book primarily about the environments that lead to unusual levels of innovation, unusual levels of creativity. An argument that runs through this book is that we shall all benefit by allowing ideas to interact rather than closeting them.

Ideas are generated in your brain. Thinking is associated with the release of electrical impulses from the nerve cells called neurons. A new idea is a new network of neurons firing in close association inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that was never formed before.

Kevin Dunbar, investigating the optimum conditions and environments where new ideas get generated, found that almost all the important breakthroughs happened when people discussed their ideas in meetings. In a discussion, the intellectual stimulation promotes the birth of new ideas. In a sense, the network patterns that we form socially, outside the brain, mimics the network patterns inside the human brain.

There is a power law governing the level of innovation and the size of cities. As cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster rate. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because, they provide both freedom and connectivity. They have hence turned out to be environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion, and propagation of good ideas.

In the world of ideas, there is a concept called ‘The adjacent possible’. This is one of the many possible futures neighbouring the present reality. The boundaries of the adjacent possible grow as you explore them. All innovations arise from the persistent exploration of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore.

In early 1994, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web was pages of words connected by hyperlinks. But within a few years, it became a medium that allowed financial transactions and online shopping. Shortly afterwards, it became a true two-way medium by allowing you to publish your writing as it was to read other people’s. It assumed new forms: the blogosphere, social network sites.

Berners-Lee created the Web after a long reflection on the idea lasting over years. It started as a side project designed to keep track of his colleagues and to a deliberate attempt to build a new information platform that could connect computers across the planet. Inventing the Web involved appreciation of the advantage in arranging ideas in a fluid matrix, a web-like array. The concept of the web came out of a process of slow simmering of ideas as against pursuing logical steps of linear problem-solving.

Where are ideas born? Environments which support innovation have a high probability of their inhabitants exploring the adjacent possible. They provide a wealth of possibilities and promote exploring novel ways of combining them.

It appears that the more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. Innovation flourishes when ideas can accidentally connect and fuse. But the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation, like the concept of intellectual property right, has persisted in building walls between ideas.

The other organizational technique for facilitating serendipitous connections is the “brainstorm” session. Brainstorming opens up the flow of ideas and hunches in a more generative fashion than is customary in a regimented workplace meeting. The secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine.

Gutenberg invented the printing press by borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem. He took the screw press for extracting grape juice and turned it into an engine for mass communication.

Evolutionary biologists call this exaptation. An organism evolves a characteristic behaviour ideally suited for a particular stimulus. Then the behaviour pattern is adapted for a completely different function. The development of the World Wide Web provides an excellent example of continuous exaptation. The original protocols were designed with a specifically academic environment in mind, creating a platform for sharing research in a hypertext format. But when the first Web pages begin to engage with ordinary consumers, Berners-Lee’s invention was found to possess a remarkable number of unanticipated qualities. A platform adapted for scholarship was exapted for shopping, sharing photos, and watching films along with a thousand other uses that would have astounded Berners-Lee.

Clustering prevalent in subcultures and eclectic businesses generate ideas, interests, and different disciplines. Cities develop unique skills and interests and subcultures. They also provide an easy path for information to permeate out of those subcultures and influence their neighbours in surprising ways. These environments are ripe for exaptation. This is how one can justify the power-law scaling in urban creativity. Think of the Paris cafés where so much of modernism was born.

Great innovators were adept in building a cross-disciplinary environment within the routines related to their work. Darwin delayed publishing his theory of evolution because he feared the controversy it would unleash would traumatize his religious wife, Emma. But Darwin also had an immense number of side interests to distract him from his opus: he studied coral reefs, bred pigeons, performed elaborate taxonomical studies of beetles and barnacles, wrote important papers on the geology of South America, spent years researching the impact of earthworms on the soil. The same eclectic pattern appears in the life of countless other inventors. Joseph Priestley bounced between chemistry, physics, theology, and political theory. Benjamin Franklin conducted electricity experiments, theorized the existence of the Gulf Stream, designed stoves, and of course made a small fortune as a printer. Legendary innovators also share this defining attribute: they have a lot of hobbies.

Most hotbeds of innovation have similar physical spaces associated with them: Homebrew Computing Club in Silicon Valley; Freud’s Wednesday salon in Vienna; the eighteenth-century English coffeehouse. All these spaces were, in their own smaller-scale fashion, emergent platforms. Culture, too, relies on stacked platforms of information. In the online world, the most celebrated recent case study in the innovative power of stacked platforms has been the rapid evolution of the social networking service Twitter. Twitter’s creators, Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone, benefited from existing platforms just as the YouTube. Twitter’s 140-character limit is based on the limitations of the SMS mobile communications platform that they rely on to connect Web messages to mobile phones. But the most fascinating thing about Twitter is how much has been built on top of its platform in a few years.

The cities and the Web are environments that compulsively connect and remix that most valuable of resources: information. Like the Web, the city is a platform that often makes private commerce possible but which is itself outside the marketplace. You do business in the big city, but the city itself belongs to everyone. Ideas collide, emerge, recombine; new enterprises find homes in the shells abandoned by earlier hosts; informal hubs allow different disciplines to borrow from one another. These are the spaces that have long supported innovation, from those first Mesopotamian settlements eight thousand years ago to the invisible layers of software that support today’s Web.

Mathematician Henri Poincaré described the creative process as a collision of ideas rising into consciousness in crowds. Fluid environments where ideas bubble up rather than are cloistered are where they flourish. So, if we want to build environments that generate good ideas in educational institutions, businesses or governments, we need to keep that fact in mind. The myth that competitive markets are the only reliable places where ideas can be harvested has no basis in reality.


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