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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

Best Business Books 2010: Innovation

Innovation as a Social Act


Steven Johnson
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead, 2010)

John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison
The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion
(Basic Books, 2010) 

Clay Shirky
Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
(Penguin Press, 2010)


When I was a young engineer, I thought innovation was primarily a technological act aimed at creating new gadgets and devices. Then I became an entrepreneur and learned that innovation is also a business act, requiring the application of sound management principles. Now that I’m in the academic world, working at the intersection of entrepreneurship and innovation, I realize that innovation — in its truest, most productive form — goes far beyond the marriage of business and technology. Innovation is first and foremost a social act, and it requires human connections to thrive.

A surprising number of this year’s books on innovation are focused on the application of design principles to products and companies. They are worthy books, and it’s good to see design thinking gain wider recognition. But this ground has already been broken, and they are for the most part how-to books — perhaps useful, but not particularly original. Instead, the year’s best business books on innovation explore new territory and illuminate the fundamental social principles that underlie the innovation process.

A single thread weaves through these books: Innovation is a team effort. But not a team effort in the ways that you might imagine. It’s an effort among individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. Each book highlights a different aspect of the social life of innovation, along the winding path that ideas take through creation, diffusion, and transformation.

Creation

To put the social aspect of innovation in context, let’s rewind a few millennia. According to Steven Johnson, the author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, sometime between 10,000 bc and 5000 bc, humankind hit a watershed moment: People began inventing in earnest. Before that, they built on one another’s ideas so slowly that it took 30,000 years to advance from mining to metallurgy. But then a big shift happened. They cast aside their hunter-gatherer ways and settled in cities, and shortly thereafter, a giant explosion of innovation occurred. The alphabet, currency, measuring sticks, aqueducts, cement, writing, bread, and wheels — these are just a handful of the vast number of world-changing inventions that our forebears developed during this period.

Something happened when humans put down roots, Johnson argues. Ideas started bouncing between individuals, growing and improving, in a web of connections he calls liquid networks. Unlike a gas, in which molecules rarely bump into one another, or a solid, in which molecules do not move from place to place, a liquid represents a free-flowing, high-contact medium. Cities provided such an environment for human thought; ideas collided within them, people learned faster, and ideas spread more widely.

I would point out that this notion of liquid networks can also help explain why universities are such hotbeds of creativity. Academia is based on the philosophy of sharing and building on ideas in an open environment, with students and faculty in close proximity, creating a rich intellectual stew. Accordingly, over the years universities have germinated game-changing ideas as diverse and valuable as the Internet, recombinant DNA technology (the basis for the biotechnology industry), liquid crystal displays, magnetic resonance imaging, Kentucky bluegrass, Plexiglas, open source software, the pacemaker, insulin, rocket fuel, and the seat belt, just to name a few.

To support his thesis, Johnson cites a global study by Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and former head of the Santa Fe Institute. West found that the creativity of a city scales to the quarter power with respect to size. What that means is that a metropolis 50 times the size of a nearby town is, on average, 130 times more innovative on measures such as the quantity of inventors, number of inventions, research and development budgets, and so on. Further, West found that the average resident in that city is three times as creative as his or her smaller-town neighbor.

 
 
 
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