Seeing Patterns and Keeping Opportunities Open for Innovation

Market Individual Non market NetworkedFocus too closely on anything and we lose sight of its context. It becomes visible only when we look from a certain distance, and context contains more than that one thing, making patterns more apparent. What we lose in detail, we gain in perspective. So it is with innovation.

In the concluding chapter of Where Good Ideas Come From Steven Johnson provides a framework to look at the general laws of innovation.

Starting with the question he used to weave stories and data on how good ideas are born and get done, “what kind of environments make innovation possible in the first place?” he draws a distinction between market-driven and non-market driven ideas, individual and networked (see image above, recreated.)

He then looks at innovations between 1400-1600, 1600-1800, and 1800 to today. For the first period, which includes the Gutenberg's press up to the Enlightenment, he says:

This is the shape that Renaissance takes, seen from a great (conceptual) distance. Most innovation clusters in the third quadrant: non-market individuals. A handful of outliers are scattered fairly evenly across the other three quadrants. This is the patterns that forms when information networks are slow and unreliable, and entrepreneurial economic conventions are poorly developed.

It's too hard to share ideas when the printing press and the postal system are still novelties, and there's not enough incentive to commercialize those ideas without a robust marketplace of buyers and investors. And so the era is dominated by solo artists: amateur investigators, usually well-to-do, working on their own private obsessions.

Not surprisingly, this period marks the birth of the modern notion of the inventive genius, the rogue visionary who somehow sees beyond the horizon that limits his contemporaries — da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo. Some of those solo artists (Galileo most famously) worked outside of broader groups because their research posed a significant security threat to the established powers of the day.

The fee innovations that did emerge out of networks — the portable, spring-loaded watches that first appeared in Nuremberg in 1480, the double-entry bookkeeping system developed by Italian merchants — have their geographic origin in cities, where information networks were more robust.

The pattern changes dramatically in the following two centuries when solo, amateur innovation becomes second to networked innovation, with the most interesting shift being between individual and networked. “Two centuries later, a majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in collaboration environments.” What happened?

Postal systems, so central to Enlightenment science, flower across Europe, population densities increase in the urban centers, coffeehouses and formal institutions like the Royal Society create new hubs for intellectual collaboration.

Many of those innovation hubs exist outside the marketplace. The great minds of the period — Newton, Franklin, Priestley  Hooke, Jefferson, Locke, Lavoisier, Linnaeas — had little hope of financial reward for their ideas, and did everything in their power to encourage their circulation.

Although there was a vertical movement to market incentives, especially approaching the 1700s of industrial capitalism in England, the codification of patent law created a protection mechanism for new ideas. This however, did not stop people and companies from refining and tweaking products, thus contributing to their evolution. “Most of the key technologies of the Industrial Revolution were instances of what scholars call collective invention.”

Modern era innovation 

Then there is the modern era where the pattern we see again and again is:

fourth-quadrant innovation creates a new open platform that commercial entities can then build upon, either by repackaging and refining the original breakthrough, or by developing emergent innovations on top of the underlying platform.

The dramatic increase in information flow facilitated by the Internet and the web along with a whole roster of tools we can use to access it wherever we are and whenever we need to has decreased costs for creators and increased the odds of ideas colliding with each other.

The open web is thus a necessary component of a thriving culture of sharing and collaboration. The lone innovator genius thus is a thing of the distant past. But for this environment to continue to brew good ideas that lead to innovation, it's critical it stays open.

Dave Winer says, “it's time to care about the open web, commerce and freedom co-exist and build off each other.” It's the very same concept Steven Johnson put forth in the concluding remarks about innovation. Ideas rise in crowds and in connections, and there is a vertical movement toward commercialization with executions.

In my work with brands and consultancies the recommendation continues to be building one's own online presences outside social networks and putting those first. This is not a case of putting all eggs in one basket — that is what a social-only execution in fact ends up being, stuck in a silo that is a company that may or may not have long-er term vision at the top and is looking out for its own profits. Rather, it's about keeping our options open.


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