CSTD Day 2 Keynote – Steven Berlin Johnson

I didn’t take a lot of notes for this talk because it was a little more of a history lesson on the nature of innovation and how it has evolved over the last few centuries. Content was drawn largely from his book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The natural history of Innovation”.

One of the early threads of his discussion was the evolution of one entity into another wholly unexpected one because of a user-driven innovation (e.g. Lloyd’s of London evolving from coffee house popular with 18th century ship captains to Insurance conglomerate).

Key concepts:

Adjacent Possible: In many respects, the CF is very good at this sort of thing. The basic definition is that in the face of a challenge or problem you find alternate means to achieve similar results to those offered by a traditional solution. (in addition to Lloyd’s above, his example was a neo-natal incubator made from Toyota 4-Runner parts that was designed for African hospitals)

Slow Hunch: Ideas that ‘percolate’ over time because the right circumstances may not exist for trial or implementation (e.g. World Wide Web), but should NOT be abandoned. This is the counter-approach to a “gut reaction” or acting on instinct if an idea feels right. The key to the success of the Slow Hunch is using time to your advantage.

Liquid Networks: Johnson likens the neural networks in our brains (and the associated liquid connections between neurons, etc.) to how information and ideas can flow from person to person or area to area if the right “environment” is set up. He also refers to the concept of “spillover” when talking about idea generation and sharing. Physical (and, to some extent, logical) environments can do much to help or hinder this process, so it’s easy to see why we have to allow “space” to collaborate and innovate. (His book refers to the legendary Building 20 at MIT as an example.) He also says that exploring the Adjacent Possible often means opening a door, but it might also mean moving a wall.

Serendipity: This is described as the power of “accidental connection”, or, finding the things you weren’t looking for. The challenge, of course, is how to create environments to foster these fortunate and accidental happenings. He asked us to consider where we go to find new ideas, and I think that’s a good thing for all of us to ponder.

Error: Some of this philosophy was also discussed in Harold Jarche’s session on Social Learning, but Errors are a natural part of the innovative process. They are also closely linked to Slow Hunches. You may be wrong about a number of things as you work and rework a Slow Hunch, but your “wrongness” might not be revealed until the right circumstances present themselves for the Slow Hunch to be tried out. The risk is in brushing aside the errors and not using them as a potential springboard for new innovations.

Exaptation: The “classic” example of this evolutionary term is how something developed or evolved for one purpose is now used (or “hijacked”) for quite another. By means of illustration, feathers in dinosaurs were originally just for warmth, but eventually became something to sustain flight. A slightly less distant example is how one man took a grape press and combined that with the already known principles of moveable type and started to mass produce Bibles. His name was Gutenberg. Using exaptation may mean that we look critically at the things we have with a view of finding new uses for mature concepts but also that we be aware of the unintended consequences. Johnson’s book is littered with examples but part of the essence is that exaptation is more likely to happen when we draw on diverse sources and points of view.

In a James Burke sort of way, Innovation needs its own “coffee house” in order to happen. The various elements noted above can combine and brew and get served up at the right time. What’s needed is the “space” to make it all happen, the minds with which to exchange ideas, and the determination to try new things or adapt tried and true ones.

For those looking for a sampler of what he’s talking about, Lifehacker has one of those spiffy live illustration videos that encapsulate the content.

While I enjoyed the talk, if I had read the book beforehand I suspect I would have been a little disappointed.


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