In Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, he argues that open platforms, collaboration and experimentation are more facilitative to innovation than market forces and competition.
The book has a sizeable appendix which presents a fascinating chronology of innovation from 1400 to 2000. Johnson groups these innovations into four categories, or quadrants, divided along two axes: whether the innovator was working alone or in a network, and whether or not they were working in a market driven environment. He shows that a significant proportion of humanity’s greatest innovations have occurred in the ‘fourth quadrant’: a non-market, networked environment, dispelling the prevailing belief that the free market inspires innovation.
‘The fourth quadrant should be a reminder that more than one formula exists for innovation. The wonders of modern life did not emerge exclusively from the propriety clash between private firms. They also emerged from open networks.’
Johnson relates this theory to Darwin’s observations in the Keeling Islands during the 1830s. Standing in the water, Darwin was impressed by the abundance and diversity of life teeming around a coral reef. More impressive to Darwin was the resilience of this community against the crashing waves and the force of the ocean. Much the same as the reef, Johnson argues cities operate as clusters for innovation, fostering networks and open platforms.
‘The popular caricature of Darwin’s theory emphasises competitive struggle above everything else. Yet so many of the insights his theory made possible have revealed the collaborative and connective forces at work in the natural world.’
Johnson concludes that openness is essential to innovation. Large organisations, both private and public, need to understand their role in creating these ‘fourth quadrant environments’ so they can better harness creative thinking and facilitate innovation. Governments should act as open platforms, encouraging networks and the creation and diffusion of new ideas. The success of companies like Google and Twitter has shown that ‘a little openness goes a long way.’
Posted by: Niki Lomax