Monday, 8 July 2013

Steve Johnson and good ideas

One of the keynote addresses at ISTE 2013 was given by Steven Johnson. You can see Steven presenting at an early TED talk here on his book about the cholera outbreak in London in 1854 (it is better than it sounds) or here on the web as a city. My particular favourite - and first contact with his ideas, is the RSA Animate video on his book Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation.

In examining the nature of innovation, Johnson identifies a number of elements that are frequently present in the development of good ideas. Rather than innovation consisting primarily in the 'Eureka' moment of individual brilliance, he argues that it is more likely to arise from:

  • the adjacent possible - which is the notion that for an innovation to take hold, certain other pre-requisites also need to have happened. It is possible for an idea to be ahead of its time
  • the slow hunch - wherein the idea gestates over time, often many years
  • liquid networks - wherein there is frequent cross-disciplinary interaction and collective engagement of ideas
  • serendipity - which denotes the accidental/happenstance/unintended/surprising connection that generates something new. Johnson argues that cities, and now the web, have greatly increased opportunities for serendipitous innovation
  • error - which is not just the process of trial and error development, but also the new possibilities that emerge when error happens. Error helps us to see through a different lense
  • exaptation - by which an idea from one sector/industry/activity is put to innovative use in another. For example, Gutenberg's printing press was (in part) an exaptation of the screw-press of the winemakers.
  • platforms - which are spaces (physical, cultural, virtual) that facilitate innovation through the encouragement of many of the factors mentioned above. He argues that open platforms, without protection of intellectual property/knowledge are much more generative of innovation.
The thrust of this book is a call for more and more networked, non-market controlled opportunities for innovation. Let information/ideas be free, rather than constrained behind competitive advantage and patent law! However, my particular interest has to do with education and how his insights can be put to use in our context to facilitate innovation. Some possibilities include:
  • facilitating casual cross-curricular interaction within the school, breaking down the subject-based teams and primary/secondary division. Separate staffrooms maintain these separations - is there a case for a 'common room'?
  • building a culture where error is not punished and new ways of doing things are encouraged
  • building physical spaces and providing furniture that encourage interaction
  • other thoughts?

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