Mass Innovation[]

Innovation is one of the defining features of modern capitalism: the ability to come up with a stream of new products, services, organisational models, experiences. Innovation is critical not just to companies but to regions and countries, if they are to make better use of their resources by combining them more effectively. We-think organisations matter because they have devised a new way to orchestrate innovation, as a rolling, mass process, involving thousands of participants.

Innovation comes from interaction. New ideas invariably emerge through an interaction with the past: the germ for them comes from somewhere. Inventors have to work out which ideas from the past they draw upon, which they discard and which they challenge. Scientists and artists work within and challenge the traditions they come from. Innovators do not just borrow from the past, but from other domains of knowledge around them. They excel at spotting what to borrow and how to blend it with ideas they already have. Cirque du Soleil, the fantastically successful Canadian-Belgian based circus troupe, plays to millions of people each year. It is a unique cultural experience. Yet none of the ingredients in Cirque du Soleil is original. What is original is the way it has blended traditional circus techniques with fable and rock opera.

Innovators build bridges between different ideas. They welcome the clash and collision of ideas that are often uncomfortable with one another. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance: when ideas do not add up. The natural tendency for most people and most companies is to seek to eliminate this clash, to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. The entire knowledge management industry is based on eliminating cognitive dissonance. That is why knowledge management is often the enemy of creativity. If there is too much cognitive dissonance because ideas are too different, it leads to chaos and confusion. If there is too little cognitive dissonance because ideas in an organisation are too similar, it can lead to predictability and boredom. Creativity emerges when different points of view are held in reciprocal tension, so they play off one another, eventually evolving into a different idea. This tends to be an evolutionary and cumulative process, usually punctuated by key moments of insight and invention. Those moments often tend to be architectural: creative people spot how to build a bridge between two ideas to combine them in a new way. The rise of highly collaborative open approaches to innovation should make us rethink how innovation happens in other walks of life. Take architecture as an example.

Nowhere is the connection between individuals and their creations stronger than in architecture. We identify buildings by their architects: Richard Rodgers and the Pompidou Centre; Christopher Wren and St Paul’s Cathedral; Norman Foster and the London Gherkin; Frank Ghery and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The truth is that all buildings are the product of intense collaboration, (after they have been occupied as much as before, as Stewart Brand points out in his brilliant account of How Buildings Learn.)

One of the most striking buildings of the first decade of the 21st century will be the swimming pool for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Imagine taking a sharp knife to a mountain of foaming bubbles in a bath, cutting out a rectangle and hollowing it out to form walls and a roof. The bubbles would fit together, because by some miracle that is what bubbles do: they curve and fit together, apparently irregularly. Yet the structure would be built around right angles and it would support itself. That is what the Beijing pool will look like: a see-thru structure made entirely of irregular bubbles that nevertheless fit together around right angles. It is a perfect example of how cognitive dissonance – two ideas that should not fit together, rectangular building and irregular bubbles – create an innovation.

No building has ever been made that way before. The idea for the pool’s structure seems to have come from a single individual: Tristram Carfrae, a talented engineer working in the Sydney offices of Ove Arup, the engineering firm appointed to the project. Arup has engineered many of the most difficult and ambitious buildings of the last 50 years, including the Sydney Opera House. Arup engineers set out to break rules. This was the third Olympic pool Carfrae had worked on. He wanted to do something different. That meant initially searching for cognitive dissonance: something that seemed impossible to make work, a rectangular pool made of bubbles. Carfrae had already seen a material he wanted to use for this greenhouse-come-swimming pool: the Eden project in Cornwall is made from a Teflon coated film. A member of the design team pointed out that when two sheets of the film were bonded together they could be inflated to form a cushion. The film would let light through but the air would provide insulation and keep heat in. The challenge was to get the cushions to fit together. (As all children know structures built from cushions do not last long.) Carfrae went to work on his computer trying to replicate cells that looked organic but would fit together to make a building with straight edges. Two days later he was ready to admit defeat and almost as a last gasp turned to Google, the Internet search engine which is a distillation of the intelligence and views of millions of web users. After asking a few simple questions about geometry and irregular shapes Carfrae found himself deep in the arcane world of foam theory, which predicts the shapes bubbles take to fit together. With a few more clicks he was reading a paper by two Irish academics in a journal published by a university in Pennsylvania. Their theory depended on software they had got from a US foam theorist, Ken Brakke. Carfrae tracked Brakke down through Google and found the software – Surface Evolver – was available, open source, from Brakke’s website.

Within a few of hours of posing his original Google inquiry Carfrae had installed Surface Evolver and was busily generating bubbles. Within a few days he had learned enough to cut the bubbles into shapes. A building with hard edges and right angles could be built from irregular shapes, in this case 7m wide Teflon bubbles. Carfrae does not claim the Beijing pool is his creation. He managed to build a bridged between the dissonant ideas in play: a rectangular building made of irregular building blocks. Like most buildings the Beijing pool is actually the product of a long process of joint authorship, starting with the way Carfrae drew upon the ideas of foam theorists, passing onto the architects, engineers and contractors who would build it and then the people who used it and adapted it to their ends. Creativity and innovation come from promoting this open clash of different ideas. That is why open source communities are so potent. They do that the whole time.

They bring together people with different ideas around a shared task and a way of working. Innovations succeed only through exposure, as early as possible, to comments and criticism, which allow ideas to be refined, adjusted and reinterpreted. That is best done through dialogue and discussion – Brenner’s short notice symposia in Cambridge, for example. Open source communities provide a ready setting for that kind of conversation. The discussions groups around Linux projects, for example, a lively, raucous and sometimes brutal. No one from head office is listening in to check you are toeing the corporate line. There is no boss to kow-tow to. Creativity comes from speaking your mind, with other people, in an attempt to come to a new and shared understanding or idea. Most corporations live in sullen silence or speak the mumbo-jumbo of mission statements. Long after the fall of Communism large corporations are the last place where free association and open debate are not tolerated.

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