Steven Johnson's keynote address this morning continued the trend of discussing innovation and inspiration at the 2012 Tableau Customer Conference. His resounding message is that the Eureka! moment of innovation is rarely --if ever-- the sudden illumination of popular thought. Usually, they are slow hunches which incubate over a significant amount of time.
Steven is the author of Future Perfect, The Invention of Air, Where Good Ideas Come From along with five other books. He wasted no time diving into an investigation of the innovation in networks, proposing that it is environments which foster and support successfull development.
In the middle of nineteenth century London growth was leading the city to poison itself. The largest city the world had ever seen was ridden with: crowding, lack of modern conveniences, and open sewers which led to annual endemics. Among the worst were near-annual cholera epidemics. The prevailing theory was that the air was contaminated, known as the so-called "miasma effect." To combat this, the general advice was people remove the refuse and waste from their houses and dump them into the Thames River. Unfortunately, as modern science confirms, cholera is spread by water-borne bacteria so this well-intentioned advice became an effective bioterrorism vector.
Doctor John Snow envisioned another theory to combat the outbreak in the SoHo district. In 1854 nearly ten percent of its population had died. He'd been investigating the annual outbreaks since 1848 and publishing findings, largely to no effect. It was a local vicar, Rev. Henry Whitehead, who helped Snow connect with the key data to track down the epedemic. Using fatality reports from the city government and anecdotal information, the two were able to find patient zero... a young girl who had died at forty weeks of age. Her family lived next door to a popular local well.
This story repeats itself through history.
Steven invoked the narrative of Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web and tracked the assembly of the modern Internet from a single computer in the CERN basement. He followed the transformation of SGML to HTML (starting with a system called ENQUIRE in late 1980) cumulating in the birth of what is recognizable as the modern Web by 1989.
Incubation, the fosterage of ideas, and improvisation surround what Steven calls "the adjacent possible." In applying what technologies are available and in use in particular areas is an integral component to innovation. His stories underscored the idea that "the tools and technology we have now can amplify innovation and the creative process."
Continuing to support this idea, Steven shared a story of innovation from sub-Saharan Africa. It began with a reduction of the instances of infant mortality through the introduction of infant incubators. Identifying the need was easy for visiting doctors, but when the initial machine broke down, no one had the ability to repair it. However observers noticed that a number of old vehicles could be used to create incubators almost solely from Toyota 4-Runner parts. Mechanics in the area developed an incredible familiarity and aptitude for keeping these running.
Steven continued into "the liquid network" as a medium for the transmission of ideas. This literally took shape in the form of coffee shops, and in his talk specifically a bi-weekly coffee meeting hosted for years in London by Benjamin Franklin. Discussions here, ranging over a diverse field of topics and interests, let to many collaborations. He attributed an element of the enlightenment as driven by the switch of common beverage from beer to coffee! This enabled an environment which supported innovation.
Additionally it is the diversity (breadth of interests) within liquid networks and broad social networks which breed innovation. Studies have shown that those who have had the most intriguing breakthroughs have a higher instance of sharing both elements in their lives. So, if you want to be innovative, be diverse. Network. Encourage yourself to gain insights from perspectives beyond the people you know; it is those differing angles and insights which serve to help facet the rough stones of ideas and help transform them to beautiful gems.
"We have all these systems out there-- in the private sector, the public sector, and non-profits who are collaborating and solving problems through peer networks. In just a space of three or four years, we've seen crowds and peer networks create things like Kickstarter, which is now funding creative projects around the world. It is doing so with funding significantly higher than that which can be done through organizations like the National Foundation for the Arts."
Think through your ideas, give them time to develop and incubate. Use the resources around you... the adjacent possible. Draw on the expertise and insights of the people you know and perhaps more importantly, those you don't. Innovate through your liquid network and don't fear to expand it. This is how you'll solve problems and change the world.
"Chance favors the connected mind."