The Winter 2014 special edition of Scientific American Mind is a treasure trove of insights on creativity. From why creative people often seem weirder than the rest of us, to how serious play makes us better adjusted, smarter, and less stressed. In particular though, several articles caught my attention in relation to innovation management and the practice of building an online community.
Bigger cities, bigger online communities
In their article, Bigger Cities Do More With Less, authors Bettencourt and West argue that although large cities require a great deal of infrastructure to be in place, they become more efficient as they grow in population. Calling this effect ‘superlinear scaling’, they note that a city with eight million people would be 15% more productive than two cities of half the size. When the size of a city doubles, the infrastructure does not - instead the infrastructure growth follows a much slower path.
This behavior is similar to online collaborative environments. It can take significant effort for a company to deploy a global system for idea sharing and collaboration - IT often needs to be heavily involved, user directory structures put in place, hardware provisioned, authentication and permissions correctly set - but once the ‘plumbing’ is done, it is relatively free to scale up with limited cost implications.
But, the authors note a critical point about the dynamics of large cities:
“Cities that have attempted to become the ‘next Silicon Valley’ have often had disappointing results. Our research suggests that certain intangible qualities of social dynamics hold the key to generating virtuous cycles of innovation”
In particular they note these key factors:
A spirit of entrepreneurship
A willingness to create novelty
A culture of excellence
The same holds for online too. There must be a sense of ambition and openness around innovation - new ideas are welcomed, and change is seen as a good thing. A constant reinforcement of excellence by promoting highly engaged contributors, and successfully implemented ideas. And an element of competitiveness can be used to great effect between regions, departments, and individuals.
As always, communication is at the heart of the dynamics
“What we can say with certainty is that increased population promotes more intense and frequent social interactions, occurrences that correlate with higher rates of productivity and innovation.”
The increased online social interactions within a company can become highly beneficial, as information sharing is rapidly increased and traditional walls of communication are broken down - creating a more open and responsive environment. Sharing ideas is a particularly strong form of interaction, due to the constructive nature - I submit a fragment of an idea, somebody from another department builds upon it with a comment, another adds a picture, link, attachment, and in very quick time we have combined insights, problems, opportunities, to create a single concept.
In a similar article by Edward Glaeser, titled Engines of Innovation, the author argues that cities bring out the best in us:
“Cities deliver the random exchanges of insight that generate new ideas for solving the most intransigent problems.”
We also see these random exchanges in social networks like Facebook, and most prominently in Twitter. Companies don’t necessarily want unstructured social networks to fill their employees time, but internal idea platforms have the benefit of providing a clear focus and strategy - they can be geared around key topics, or challenges, which have a direct link to company goals. The random exchanges between employees can then happen within the context of this focus, and help to cross-fertilize knowledge from a wide array of skills and expertise.
Bettencourt and West point out that a tension exists in mega-cities between the need to continuously support and fuel the necessary growth, with the risk of its size collapsing in on itself. This tension however is what drives innovation:
“Many of civilization’s greatest inventions have come from dire necessities. Just think of plumbing, electricity, and even democracy - not to mention coffee shops.”
It also seems apparent that when a large company is most in need of innovation and transformation, it is the precise time that they should be investing more into digital tools, such as ideation and collaboration platforms. When implemented well, they can rapidly help to fuel a new era of innovation.