Innovation, Networks & Design

The terms innovation, networks and design are becoming “hot”, although nothing compares to what could come from bringing these three ideas together. But what might that look like and what ought to be considered in moving these three ideas closer?

Innovation is on the brain for business, health, and social services. Productivity, creativity and strategy execution are all tied to firms’ abilities to be innovative. Not surprisingly, there has been a flood of investigations into innovation and theories about why some organizations adapt and survive and why some do not.

One of the latest books to explore this innovation challenge is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. His book follows on others that have looked at the history of innovation and illustrated the benefits that come from social interaction. Social networks are one of the principal means of leveraging the benefits of interaction by creating more space for such interactions to occur. Johnson refers to the best of these as ‘liquid networks’, drawing on the analogy of a fluid and dynamic set of conditions that link people and ideas together.

While there is much written about the structure of networks and their benefits for innovation, relatively little is discussed on their design. While networks do happen somewhat unconsciously (we don’t always consider how we fill gaps, strengthen connection, or create weak-tie bonds in our relationships) they are also designed. Being more conscious of what kind of networks we create and what conditions are likely to produce favourable ones is something that is worthy of deeper thought and research.

A good example is looking through London (UK) where I’ve spent the last few days. If you’ve never been to London, it is easy to get lost in the diversity of languages, dress and styles of people everywhere you go. Some of these are undoubtedly tourists, but many are not. London’s diversity makes it a prime location for innovation now, just as it has been in the past. But while there is much diversity here, it is the way in which the space for these interactions have been laid out that causes some question to whether or not this space is leveraging its innovative potential effectively through the networks created.

Those areas of the city that are most attractive to the most number of people — and thus, creating the most diverse spaces — are also the most crowded, maximizing the number of contacts you’ll make with others. Yet this high number of contacts is not the same as quality contacts and it is those quality contacts that make the big difference in getting ideas moving from one state to another, while the size of the networks that makes something go bigger. Too often the discussion shifts to making bigger networks, without the cultural curation that goes into making deeper ones.

To that end, I was reflecting on the number of research networks that I am a part of and how very little time or energy is spent on nurturing quality interactions, just creating more of them. In an age where there is so much available to us — information and otherwise — the idea of creating more seems somewhat antithetical to what we are trying to do. It is like we are all trying to be London, yet without creating the Hyde Parks and spaces where the diversity that comes to these network members can really benefit from interacting with one another.

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