Creative Spaces: Where Process & Serendipity Meet

This past winter, when I was preparing for my presentation on the New England tavern’s similarities to social media (see Social Media 18th Century and Today), I found Steven Johnson’s excellent TED talk, on open innovation systems.

The author of Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores the recurring patterns that make environments more creative and innovative.

Fluid Networks and Creativity

Just as an idea represents a series of new connections between neurons in our respective brains, so too, Johnson suggests, are some environments more likely to stimulate these new configurations.

He describes the architecture of the creative space as a fluid network, where people from different backgrounds and interests can get together, allowing their ideas to mingle. He goes on to say that good ideas have long incubation periods, known as the slow hunch, which may take years to evolve. A good example, Johnson elsewhere cites, is the Worldwide Web, which reportedly Tim Berners-Lee worked on at the back of his mind, for at least ten years.

According to Johnson, innovation and deep thinking take place in environments, similar to the seventeenth or eighteenth-century coffeehouse or tavern. With the increased connectivity, we’re more likely to borrow from others’ hunches, combine them with our own, and over time, form something new.

Intentional Serendipity

Johnson’s talk made me recall one job setting, where as part of my interview, the product manager proudly gave me a tour of the company’s newly designed office. The office provided a large open space and every detail of the physical layout was designed to reinforce the Agile methodology.

In that open space, the various members on the product development team, with reps from each discipline (including technical writers) met daily, for their SCRUM status.

The thing that struck me the most about that setting was the intentionality of the office design…The entire environment was architected from the start to invite the kinds of unpredictable collisions that lead to innovation.

It represents to me process and serendipity working together, and is probably what Johnson meant when he concluded: “Chance favors the connected mind.”

Fostering Open Innovation Systems

So, what environments have most inspired your own creativity? Do you agree with Johnson that innovation is rarely a single moment of inspiration, but rather the collision of smaller hunches over time, within fluid networks? How can we foster open spaces and other hunch-cultivating mechanisms, within our own organizations?

Finally, is it possible to connect and protect ideas at the same time? What are, (if any), the acceptable tradeoffs? (In the O’Reilley Webcast on Information Security and Social Networks, Ben Rothke provides excellent tips on finding this balance.)

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