MIAMI—Innovation is rarely the result of a “eureka” moment and more often the result of a diverse “liquid network” of people from different backgrounds with different ideas, popular science author and media theorist Steven Berlin Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good For You, Where Good Ideas Come From, Future Perfect) told the Global Public Relations Summit in Miami this morning.
“We have an almost innate desire to tell stories of innovation in term of light bulb moments,” says Johsnon, who was introduced by Ketchum chief executive Rob Flaherty at a session sponsored by the agency. “There’s something very satisfying about hearing the story told in those terms. But almost always the ‘eureka moment’ is a myth, something retroactive that was written into the story to make it more satisfying.
“But most great Ideas starts as a hunch, a feeling there’s an avenue worth exploring. Ideas can stay in that hunch state for moths, years, even decades. It is people and organizations that can Keep those hunches alive who are the most creative and most innovative.”
One example comes from CERN, the Swiss physics lab where Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, an idea that took many years to come to fruition, that was built on the work of many others who had created the internet, and the programming language, and other elements that went to make up the web.
The context of the idea also matters, Johsnon says, citing a concept called “the adjacent possible,” which was first suggested by biologist and complex systems analyst Stuart Kauffman and suggests the finite number of ways in which a system can make—in the same way that at any point in a chess game only a finite number of moves are possible.
“There was no way, no matter how smart you were, to create a microwave oven in the 16th century,” he says. That’s a problem that has analogs in today’s world, including efforts to provide neo-natal incubators to developing countries that did not have the infrastructure to maintain them—so that when the incubators broke down, they had no means to repair them.
That problem was solved when engineers from MIT realized that while those developing regions did not have the technology to repair an incubator but could keep their cars running. The solution was an incubator built entirely from automotive parts.
“Every new idea is a network of other ideas,” says Johnson. “That connective process of re-borrowing and remixing ideas is what really drives innovation.”
That ought to change the way people think about how they put themselves in a truly creative environment.
Says Johnson: “I look at a lot of environments and they all share the same property, what I like to call liquid networks. People with a diversity of ideas get together and the ideas flow from mind to mind.” Examples range from 18th century coffee houses, which gave birth to the ideas that fueled the enlightenment, to modern urban centers.
“This is not the political argument for diversity, it’s a complementary point. If we surround ourselves with people who are different from us we will come up with more original and innovative ideas.”
He cites studies into the social networks of particularly innovative people—conducted before the social media revolution made the research easier—found that innovators had “more loose, casual, weak connections with much wider range of professions than other people.” The result is that ideas from different fields can open up new ways of thinking about your own field.
So when Apple sought to launch its own retail stores, the company did not look to learn from other electronic retailers, but to five-star hotels. The Apple “Genius Bar” was based on the concierge service provided by high-end hotels.
Twitter’s hashtag, meanwhile, was developed by users, “people on the edge of the network,” not by the company’s founders or its technical experts.
His conclusion: “Chance favors the connected mind.”