Importance of social capital in innovation

Steven Johnson has an interesting new book out called Where Good Ideas Come From.

He talks about a number of conditions that help make innovation possible (the fact that often it takes a long time for innovation to emerge from rough drafts of earlier ideas, and requires incubation of these neonate ideas).

But, one precondition he focuses on is the social dimension.  Often a breakthrough innovation requires marrying or “colliding” two partial ideas.  Sometimes these ideas rest on hunches, often residing in two separate individuals, and unless these hunches are brought together and connected, the innovation goes undiscovered.  [It’s what Matt Ridley calls “When ideas have sex.”] To do this we have to create spaces for people to get together so we can unlock this innovation, hence the import of the coffee house during the Enlightenment or Modernist Salons in Paris (what Steven calls the “Liquid Network”). Kevin Dunbar also documented how something as prosaic as the weekly lab meeting was where most of the innovation at a lab typically occurred, not while poring over the microscope.

What Steven Johnson is really talking about is social capital.  In fact Steven Johnson thinks that “connectivity” is the key engine of historical and American creativity: “Chance favors a connected mind.”  [This is analogous to the process Andrew Wiles used to  solve one of the great math riddles of all: Fermat’s Last Theorem.]  Johnson thinks that the Internet will turn out to a net plus in this process.

An example of this collision of ideas to produce innovation is a neonatal warmer (to halve infant mortality) in developing countries. Timothy Prestero, Design that Matters, took the concept of a warmer, but used bicycle and auto parts from those countries so that when the warmer broke down, local mechanics could repair them.  It’s an analogy for the infusion of ideas from lots of different sources.

Another interesting example he draws on is showing how a few scientists in their spare time trying to compute Sputnik’s speed and ultimately its path from listening to its signal, ultimately led to putting up satellites to enable the military to know where its nuclear submarines were, and then ultimately to using these satellites to determine where one’s phone or car was.

On the topic of social capital and innovation, other game theory and social network research shows that often it is not your close ties that unlock this creativity and innovation but your weaker ties (that connect those to others who are a little less similar who are likely to have differing and highly valuable new ideas). Think cross-fertilization.  So one not only needs to create social spaces, but spaces and a mindset that lets you connect with your weaker ties (maybe someone in your lab with a different specialty or background, or someone at your school with a different focus, or a coffee shop that brings people together whose only connection is that they drink coffee every morning at 10 AM).

See Wired Interview with Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly here.

See TED video with Steven Johnson here.


One response to “Importance of social capital in innovation

  1. I teach civic engagement and social capital courses at Portland State University; travel and lecture on those subjects and sustainability, community based learning, social equity. In last 6 years, 23 countries, 200,000 miles, over 250 presentations, 5000 people.

    Thanks for all your great work.


    Steve Johnson

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