Innovation as Conversation[]

Most innovations do not come in a flash of insight to a single individual. Most innovation is a highly collaborative and cumulative process that depends on conversation to allow different ideas and perspectives to be melded and blended.

Part 1:

Ideas have many authors[]

The worm c elegans is as simple as an organism gets. It has a front end, where the food comes in, a rear where the waste exits, a bottom and a top, a left and right. On the face of it, that is pretty much it. Except even the simplest worm achieves a mind-bogglingly complex task: it generates itself from a tiny set of genetic instructions. The worm is like a self-organising chemical factory, orchestrating millions of miniscule reactions, which seemingly adjust to one another, without any central programmer being in charge. The collaborative effort to understand how the worm achieves this task, which started in the 1960s, created the basis for the subsequent global, public initiative to map the human genome three decades later. Our understanding of both is the outcome of an elaborate work of shared authorship. Scientific research is a vital source for the peer-to-peer methods being deployed by open source projects, file sharing systems and community based companies. In these communities innovation and creativity is also invariably a cumulative, cooperative and shared activity. It is rarely the work of a lone genius who comes up with an idea in a flash of insight, a eureka moment. Most innovations are jointly authored. That is why these emerging collaborative ways of working are so powerful: they promote the kind of collaboration that makes creating new ideas easy.

When Sydney Brenner set out to unravel the worm’s genome in 1965 just eight years after Frances Crick and James Watson had uncovered the double-helix structure of DNA, little was known about how genes worked. Brenner set out to find out how the worm’s genes directed the growth of the organism as a whole, with a small team of fledgling researchers and crude tools: at the start they lifted worms into Petri dishes with sharpened tooth picks. It was as if someone had seen the Wright brothers’ first flight and decided to start work on a rocket to the moon. Had Brenner decided to confine his efforts to his laboratory at Cambridge University, he would be still at work. The worm project succeeded only because from the outset its leaders adopted an open, highly collaborative, model of organisation. Brenner’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University provided the kernel: he attracted collaborators. Brenner announced he was going to explore a question that intrigued many others. He had just enough resources to get going and just enough momentum to attract other laboratories as collaborators. The way Brenner’s lab worked set the tone for what would eventually become a global project involving thousands of researchers. The atmosphere at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology was hard working, meritocratic, egalitarian and conversational. The coffee room quickly became the place where people discussed ideas. They were making it up as they went along, so there were no established territories or reputations to defend. Sharing ideas quickly became the norm. Brenner also insisted people test out their ideas as early as possible: he would call symposia at two-minute’s notice so that people would have to talk about ideas without being prepared. That ensured a more open, creative discussion. The atmosphere Brenner created in Cambridge set the tone for the project as a whole, as it expanded to encompass thousands of researchers around the world: collaborative work as the basis for shared innovation. One of the key institutions for this sprawling global community of knowledge was the relentlessly practical Worm Breeder’s Gazette, which became the place where researchers shared their discoveries but also their methods, tips and tools (not unlike Craigslist but for worm geneticists.)

Brenner’s open approach set in motion a virtuous cycle of knowledge sharing. That was not just because Brenner, and other project leaders such as John Sulston believed in open science. There was no other way to get the work done. Brenner had identified a task too complex for any one lab to complete. If a researcher found out what a particular gene did, that knowledge was virtually worthless unless it could be combined with information about other genes. The puzzle would be completed only through collaboration and that collaboration had to take place on a mass scale: there were too many pieces to find and fit together. The research community could only be sustained on the basis of common ownership of the basic knowledge. Brenner and his colleagues established a commons on which worm breeders could work together. As Bob Waterston, one of the US leaders of the project put it: “The more we put out there the less of a problem it was to get other people to contribute. The more we restricted the flow of knowledge, the more people felt they had to bargain with us before they would release their results. If you just put the data out there then everyone was on the same footing and they were all free to talk about it.”

The commons grew with the community that contributed to it. In 1975, ten years after Brenner launched the project, the first international meeting of worm genome researchers attracted 24 participants. A decade later there was enough information to fit into a sizeable textbook. When the complete gene sequence was announced in 1998 the then US vice-president Al Gore greeted it as the equivalent of the moon landings. By 2002 the worm researchers’ meeting attracted 1,600 participants. One thesis listed all 5,000 connections between neurons in the worm’s brain. The project had traced the history of every cell in the worm’s body. It was the most completely understood organism on earth.

Technology was critical to the project’s success. Researchers who started out using toothpicks ended up using automated gene sequencing machines. But the worm project – and the human genome project that followed it - were a triumph of open, collaborative, social organisation. Not only did Brenner mobilise a vast community of researchers but he found a way to combine their very different skills and interests with very little hierarchy or bureaucracy. The genetic map was an intricate work of joint-authorship, woven together by an unfolding creative conversation among a global community of researchers.

Eric Raymond, the open software guru, says mass collaborative innovation is like a bazaar – open, cacophonous, with no one in control – rather than a cathedral, where craftsmen implement a master plan. The worm project could never have been a cathedral. There could be no master plan. The researchers were moving into unknown territory. No one knew what they would find next and how it would fit together. Brenner could not look at a plan and allocate people to tasks, because he had no idea what would need to be done next. The researchers had to fan out and find out for themselves. They had to allocate themselves to interesting tasks that they felt able to take on, rather than ask for direction from the centre, and they had to share their ideas with one another, to build upon one another’s work. Brenner’s leadership also provided a way for this mass of decentralised activity to be brought together. He set out the cause that animated the community: doing something never attempted before, mapping the genome of an entire organism. He set the style of working by the way he ran his own lab: egalitarian, open and challenging. He set the norms others followed by releasing information early to encourage other to do likewise.

It is said that big breakthroughs only come from small teams or even individuals who can focus their energies. The worm project is just one example among many – a more recent one is the way international collaboration among scientists decoded the Sars virus – of how mass collaboration can spur huge strides in scientific knowledge. The ethics of open science are now feeding a much wider range of organisations, working in many different fields. Free form organisations like Wikipedia and Linux have taken practices common in science – open early publication of results, peer-to-peer review – and turned them into a mass, everyday working practices, for people writing software, playing games or creating an encyclopedia. An elite and esoteric way of working, usually confined to men in white coats, has been turned into a mass way of working, ideally suited to large scale innovation and complex tasks. Their success demands we think in an entirely different way about where ideas come from.

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