In order to be marketable today and in an increasingly competitive economy, each one of us has to get our creative juices flowing and constantly come up with fresh ideas. But innovation is easier said than done. Steven Johnson's new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation examines the history of innovation in science. Through a rich set of anecdotes, Johnson illustrates seven principles underlying good ideas. One principle in particular stands out: liquid networks. Johnson believes that creativity flourishes in spaces in which we are constantly connecting and exchanging ideas with others. People who live in densely populated cities or who have access to the Web especially benefit from such liquid networks. Most of us reading BigThink live in cities and have access to the Web, but are we really leveraging the creative spaces they provide? Even if we don't realize it, the answer for 90% of the population is No.
The fact is we meet the same kinds of people all the time. Say you live in New York. The city is full of possibilities: financiers, designers, actors, scientists, philosophers, tailors, construction workers, chefs. New York epitomizes the liquid network. But honestly, who do you meet? Most likely you meet friends from college or colleagues from work, most of whom are doing things similar to you. We tend to move around in small circles, which seem to get smaller and more homogenous as we progress in our careers and settle down with a family. “I get exposure to a great variety of ideas on the Web,” you may counter. Do you really? Do you only read the same sections in the New York Times? Is your social interactivity limited to friends on Facebook? Are the people you follow on Twitter those that have the same interests and generally share the same viewpoint? Well, then, you're not really getting much exposure. You're just getting your ideas reinforced, and frankly, that's not going to trigger any new ideas in your mind.
So how do we implement Johnson's principle? Here are some easy tips:
1. Diversify your reading list. If you're a techie and read only Wired, peruse Foreign Policy; if you're in fashion, look at MIT Technology Review along with Vogue and Bazaar; and if you're a novelist devoted to the New Yorker, subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. Don't know how to curate a good multi-disciplinary list? Start by reading 3 quarks. Steven Pinker and Clay Shirky are fans.
2. Network in the city. Meet someone in a completely different field than yours once a week. Don't just chit-chat about the weather. Discuss your work with them. They may stare at you blankly as you explain the sleep cycles of the Drophila fly if that's your research, but do it anyway. Then ask them to tell you something about their work. If a ballerina's reflections on her Swan Lake performance the night before seem irrelevant to your vocation, keep an open mind and enjoy it. Over time, the cross-pollination of reflections will begin to spark ideas for you and the people you meet.
3. Network on the web. Say you are a working mother of two and between your job, feeding the kids and putting them to bed, you only have 30 minutes to curl up with your laptop before you pass out. No problem. The Web was designed to be the ultimate liquid network. First, sign up for Twitter. If you're already on Twitter, cut your list by 25-40%. Most likely you're only following people in your field of interest. Here's the key to the Twitter network: diversify, diversify, diversify! Pick five subjects (say art, physics, architecture, spirituality and film) and Google people who write blogs on them. If you like the blog, follow that person on Twitter. He or she is most likely reading interesting news and tweeting it. If you have an iPad, enjoy the curated list your Twitter network has put together on Flipboard. Be proactive about writing to your Twitter group - both those you follow and who follow you. If people are writing a blog and aren't very famous, chances are they will write back to you and you can engage in a discussion. Don't just follow people, talk to them! An exchange of ideas depends on dialogue.
Definitely watch this animated trailer of Johnson's book too:
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.