Hagel, Seely Brown, and Davison take a broad view of innovation, citing examples as wide-ranging as multinational corporations, teen surfers in Maui, Iranian protesters, World of Warcraft gamers, and entrepreneurs. The book is dense; at times it feels as though the authors tried to fit too much into their manifesto. Expect to spend some time digesting it; its ideas are complex — but also genuinely game-changing.
Society plays a critical role in the development and successful diffusion of innovations, but it also affects innovations in a third way: It shapes them. And often, it changes them in ways that are outside the control of innovators, meaning that the best innovators can do is anticipate and adapt. A good way to do that is to read Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.
Shirky, who teaches in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications program, has proven to be one of the most insightful writers on the revolutionary effect of the Internet. In this book, he digs deep into the social DNA of humankind to tell a story — an unfinished story — of an opportunity of global scale that he challenges the reader to meet. In the process, he illuminates how society’s partnership with innovation can lead to surprising and wonderful results.
The world has time on its hands, says Shirky, an inordinate amount of free time totaling more than a trillion hours a year, which is now spent mostly in front of the television in many modern societies. But instead of watching TV, he argues, people should be using those hours in creative endeavors, sharing their work for societal gain.
I celebrate this as an idea whose time has come — yet again. A hundred years ago most of us would have been rolling up our sleeves to make a living or to fix something that was broken. Looking further back, the creative acts of singing, dancing, and telling stories by the campfire were an essential part of our everyday lives. It’s only recently, in the last half century, that we have been turning our backs on our tribal heritage of creating and sharing. We’ve become consummate consumers, of products, services, and media. Fortunately, however, the Internet — our new digital campfire — has finally begun to patch up our temporary estrangement from our communal nature.
It is in this context that Shirky introduces a big opportunity, and it’s only natural that our social side should embrace it. The Internet and its tools have reduced the cost of and lowered the barriers to creating content and connecting people. As a result, everyone who has access to these wonders has the opportunity to shape the future. For instance, the photographs that people upload and the reviews they post by the millions can become the collective foundation for future applications and communities. With this newfound ability to participate, people can contribute to world-changing innovations, like Ushahidi.com, a crowdsourced, online reporting platform that was first used by Kenyans to report violent crimes in real time, and now has spread globally.
Shirky is a great storyteller. He weaves his points into a journey that is thought-provoking and accessible; he explores the many facets of social science for insights that are fresh and relevant. Cognitive Surplus strikingly illustrates how society is guiding the ultimate direction of many innovations. Businesspeople should take heed. If they don’t, they might miss how social media is shaping their industries, underestimate the opportunity to leverage stakeholders and customers in the creation of their products and services, and fail to grasp the influence of open source models on their bottom line.