Environments That Promote Innovation

February 7, 2013 — Leave a comment

The initial three source texts for dog & pony dc’s next show, Toast, include Steven Johnson‘s Where Good Ideas Come From. Recommended to me by friend and, now, Toast ensemble member David LaCroix, I pass the recommend on as a wellspring of inspiration about how ideas are birthed, cultivated, promoted, and transformed into life-altering inventions and movements. Today I was struck soundly by one of the final passages, which compares types of “platforms” (read: environments) that cultivate innovation. Still wrestling with what my metaphor is, but I know the below passage gets at why I encourage in collaborative or ensemble work.

“Generative platforms require all the patterns of innovation we have seen over the proceding pages; they need to create a space where hunches and serendipitous collisions and exaptations and recycling can thrive. it is possible to create such a space in a walled garden. But you are far better off situating your platform in a commons.

commons
But perhaps “commons” is the wrong word for the environment we’re trying to imagine, though it has a long and sanctified history in intellectual property law. The problem with the term is twofold. For starters, it has conventionally been used in opposition to the competition struggle of the marketplace. The original “commons” of rural England disappeared when they were swallowed up by the private enclosures of agrarian capitalism in the 16th and 18th centuries. Yet the innovation environments we have explores are not necessarily hostile to competition and profit. More important, however, the commons metaphor doesn’t suggest the patterns of recycling and exaptation and recombination that define so many innovation spaces. When you think of a commons, you think of a cleared field dominated by a single source of grazing. You don’t think of an ecosystem. The commons is a monocrop grassland, not a tangled bank.

reefI prefer another metaphor drawn from nature: the reef.

You need only survey a coral reef (or a rain forest) for a fewminutes to see that competition for resources abouts in this space, as Darwin rightly observed. But that is not the source of its marvelous biodiversity. The struggle for existence is universal in nature. The few residents of a desert ecosystem are every bit as competitive as their equivalents on a coral reef. What makes the treef so inventive is not the struggle between the organism but the way they have learned to collaborate–the coral and the zooxanthellae and the parrotfish borrowing and reinventing each other’s work. This is the ultimate explanation of Darwin’s Paradox: the reef has unlocked so many doors of the adjacent possible because of the way it shares.

The reef helps us understand the other riddles we begin with: the runaway innovation of citities, and of the Web. They, too, are environments that compulsively connect and remix that most valuable of resources: information. Like the Web, the city is a platform that often makes private commerce possible but which is itself outside the marketplace. You do business in the big city, but the city itself belongs to everyone. (“City air is free air,” as the old saying goes.) Ideas collide, emerge, recombine; new enterprises find homes in the shells abandoned by earlier hosts; informal hubs allow different disciplines to borrow from one another. These are the spaces that have long supported innovation, from those first Mesopotamian settlements 8,000 years ago to the invisible layers of software that support today’s Web.

Ideas rise in crowds, as Poincare said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection. So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas…we need to keep that history in mind, and not fall back on the easy assumptions that competitive markets are the only reliable source of good ideas. Yes, the market has been a great engine of innovation. But so has the reef.”

– Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, pg 244 – 245

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