Reading About Innovation

8034188For the past year I’ve been pretty much reading only books about science and the history of industries, particularly tech industries. One of my favorite reads of the year was The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, a history of the digital age starting with Babbage and Lovelace and ending up with Page and Brin. I especially enjoyed the section on early seventies Silicon Valley, when one of the perks of working at Atari was access to a hot tub and top-shelf weed. I also recently started John Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, which chronicles how the telephone industry cultivated new ideas for a long stretch of the twentieth century. It’s insightful if a bit dry.

The best book I’ve read about innovation so far is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I’ve never read this author’s work before, but I was instantly engaged and now want to seek out his other books. Where Good Ideas Come From is concerned with properties of environments where innovations flourish, whether they’re coral reefs or research labs. He identifies seven qualities that foster innovation. If I were to try to boil it all down into a single long sentence, I might say it like this:

Innovative environments allow for lots of serendipitous communication among diverse discipines, empower people to act on strange hunches, tolerate a high degree of error, re-purpose old inventions, and use older ideas as platforms for new ones.

I read this book over a weekend in which I also learned about the Wood Wide Web, a  mind-blowing new discovery about how trees are networked and communicate with one another via a symbiotic relationship with a thread-like fungus that entangles itself with their roots. Many of the examples of how this literally underground network functions sounded like examples from Johnson’s book.

Then this afternoon I stumbled upon this 2014 Mónica Guzmán story from Geekwire, “Why Seattle Should Bring Back the 1700s London Coffeehouse.” The coffee house is a cherished environment among those who contemplate the history of innovation, as they represent the kinds of fluid social atmospheres that facilitate bumping into people of diverse backgrounds, thoughts, and disciplines.

If there’s one take-away from all these various essays and books about innovative environments, it’s to let lots of different kinds of people rub up against each other and share their ideas. In the Seattle VR scene, that’s exactly what meetups and events like last weekend’s Extreme Futures and Technology Forecasting Conference are all about.

If you want to encourage innovation in one discipline, maybe the best thing to do is mix  people working within that discipline with people from other disciplines. This is what gets me so excited about CoMotion Labs. In a sense it promises to be a synecdoche of the larger innovative environment that is Seattle VR and AR.