I haven’t read the book, but complex systems scientist Cosma Shalizi has a rich review that addresses many of the books strengths and weaknesses. He introduces the book as:
This is 100-proof American evolutionist, naturalistic liberalism, which is to say, Pragmatism. It is a celebration of the virtues of openness, experimentation (including failed experiments), giving “slow hunches” chances to develop, to serendipitously blending ideas from diverse intellectual backgrounds and disciplines, and the continuity of human culture and thought with processes in the natural world. It’s a view of the social life of the mind, illustrated by engagingly-told anecdotes from the history of science and technology; apt references to a wide range of scholarly studies; long, admiring quotations from Darwin; the natural history of coral reefs and the evolution of sexual reproduction. (The broader history of culture, especially the fine arts, is occasionally alluded to, and there are abundantly merited plugs for his old teacher Franco Moretti’s studies on the evolution of genres and “distant reading”; but mostly it’s a science-and-technology book.) Johnson has painted a crowd scene: good ideas hardly ever come from isolated individuals thinking very hard and having flashes of inspiration; they come from people who are immersed in communities of inquiry, and especially from those who bridge multiple communities. The picture is an attractive one, which I actually think (or perhaps “fervently pray”) has a lot of truth to it.
As examples of innovative environments, the book — to be released early next month — offers the city and the Internet. Mr. Johnson, who has written several books on the intersection of science, technology and society, uses these innovation engines as a backdrop to analyze a “series of shared properties and patterns” that “recur again and again in unusually fertile environments.”
These seven patterns are the main dish of this rich, integrated and often sparkling book. They include the power of the slow hunch and the role of serendipity, error and inventive borrowing. The more that these patterns are embraced, the author argues, “the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.”
Defining innovation as “the adoption of new practice in a community,” Professor Denning and Mr. Durham lay out eight practices they deem vital to success: sensing, envisioning, offering, adopting, sustaining, executing, leading and embodying.
For each practice, the authors explain its essence, its relationship to specific instances of effective innovation and the pitfalls one is likely to encounter in undertaking the recommended actions. They also include some homework: what to practice for each set of skills.
The book is very much a hands-on guide. Its frame is innovation, but, on a deeper level, it is concerned with effective leadership, specifically how people create and sustain change in groups.
Yes, we are relaunching! For a couple of months in 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Centre hosted a small conference blog for the Amsterdam 2009 Conference on Earth System Governance. We posted a number of phone and Skype-interviews with prominent scholars in the field of earth system science and governance, with the ambition to explore the role of governance, institutions, networks and organizations in building adaptive capacity, and supporting innovation in an era of global environmental change.
After a quite successful experimental phase, we now move into the relaunch phase. That means: more blogposts, more authors, and (hopefully) a larger audience. The writing team now consists of an interesting mix of scientists ranging from resilience science, development studies, and network theory, to transition and innovation research. See the blog here, and meet the new team here.
This short animated interview with myself, pretty much summarizes what we intend to do with this digital platform. Enjoy!
The STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability, UK) just recently launched a book entitled “Science and Innovation for Development”. The STEPS Centre blog reports:
A large part of the book consists of reviews of different technologies relating to development. The reviews use the Millenium Development Goals as a starting point, and focus on agriculture, environment and health (with an unsurprising emphasis on scientific/technical aspects, given the authors’ backgrounds).
You can download individual chapters, or the whole book, here.
Scientific American reports on a new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues from Indiana University in which they demonstrate that increasing psychological distance to a problem can increase creativity:
Why does psychological distance increase creativity? According to construal level theory (CLT), psychological distance affects the way we mentally represent things, so that distant things are represented in a relatively abstract way while psychologically near things seem more concrete. Consider, for instance, a corn plant. A concrete representation would refer to the shape, color, taste, and smell of the plant, and connect the item to its most common use – a food product. An abstract representation, on the other hand, might refer to the corn plant as a source of energy or as a fast growing plant. These more abstract thoughts might lead us to contemplate other, less common uses for corn, such as a source for ethanol, or to use the plant to create mazes for children. What this example demonstrates is how abstract thinking makes it easier for people to form surprising connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, such as fast growing plants (corn) and fuel for cars (ethanol).
These results build on previous studies which demonstrated that distancing in time – projecting an event into the remote future – and assuming an event to be less likely (that is, distancing on the probability dimension) can also enhance creativity. In a series of experiments that examined how temporal distance affects performance on various insight and creativity tasks, participants were first asked to imagine their lives a year later (distant future) or the next day (near future), and then to imagine working on a task on that day in the future. Participants who imagined a distant future day solved more insight problems than participants who imagined a near future day. They also performed better on visual insight tasks, which required detecting coherent images in “noisy” visual input, as well as on creative generation tasks (e.g., listing ways to improve the look of a room). Similar evidence has been found for probability. Participants were more successful at solving sample items from a visual insight task when they believed they were unlikely, as opposed to likely, to encounter the full task.
This research has important practical implications. It suggests that there are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality. Perhaps the modern environment, with its increased access to people, sights, music, and food from faraway places, helps us become more creative not only by exposing us to a variety of styles and ideas, but also by allowing us to think more abstractly. So the next time you’re stuck on a problem that seems impossible don’t give up. Instead, try to gain a little psychological distance, and pretend the problem came from somewhere very far away.
I’d been asked by the organizers [of the seminar on the Information Society in Barcelona] to talk about how NGOs and social change organizations innovate, with the special challenge that I wasn’t supposed to celebrate innovative projects so much as I was to talk about the process of innovation. As I thought about this, I realized that I a) didn’t have much understanding of how social entrepreneurs innovate and b) didn’t have much confidence that social entrepreneurs generally did a good job of innovating with social media tools. Generally, I think that social entrepreneurs place far too much faith in social media tools and assume that they’ll be more popular, useful and powerful than they actually turn out to be.
So I offered a talk about some very different types of innovation – African innovations including the zeer pot, William Kamkwamba’s windmill, biomass charcoal, and endless examples of innovation using mobile phones. My argument was that innovation often comes from unusual and difficult circumstances – constraints – and that it’s often wiser to look for innovation in places where people are trying to solve difficult, concrete problems rather than where smart people are sketching ideas on blank canvases.
I offered seven rules that appear to help explain how (some) developing world innovation proceeds:
innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)
don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)
embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)
innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)
problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)
what you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)
infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa – see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)
The most experimental part of a very experimental talk was applying these seven principles to three ICT4D experiments – One Laptop Per Child, Kiva and Global Voices. Ismael has a review of my talk including the scores I offer for each of the projects on these criteria.