Yesterday I reported on efforts to create a Cascadia Innovation Corridor between Seattle and Vancouver. I’m all for it. One hundred percent. But I think we need to understand what “innovation” means and how it happens. It makes for warm and fuzzy copy to say you’re pro-innovation, but real innovation can be a messy process that defies the plans of bureaucracies.
Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation is a terrific place to start when contemplating how to cultivate innovators. My main takeaway from this well-written book was that innovation happens when you get a diverse group of people together, give them freedom to screw around, indulge their weird hunches, and make it easy for them to accidentally bump into each other.
Here’s a passage that should give you a sense of Johnson’s argument.
We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. Like the free market itself, the case for restricting the flow of innovation has long been buttressed by appeals to the ‘natural’ order of things. But the truth is, when one l0oks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete. –Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation
In the dotcom portion of my career, I ping ponged among various startups that sold everything from online courses to vacation packages to tampons. The most hated meetings of that era for me were the “brainstorming sessions.” These would entail getting a group of people in a room to “think outside the box.” Usually there was a whiteboard that slowly filled up with timidly offered ideas, and a sweating manager who said things like “Come on, team! No idea is a bad idea!” I found these dispiriting sessions to be the least innovative and least creative wastes of my time, and believe me, I endured more than my share of early 2000s team-building retreats.
Compare that to the hackathon model. I’ve only been to a few of these gatherings, but I have been stunned at how many good ideas come out of them. In a hackathon, teams self-organize and quickly work out roles and responsibilities, then create something together over a weekend. Authority is very broadly distributed. There’s no danger of anyone getting fired for having a bad idea, and the relationships that form last well beyond the weekend. I’m still in touch with my Hololens Hackathon teammates, many months later.
Greg Howes comes from the world of enterprise–architecture, construction–and has been organizing hackathons all over the world in such places as Helsinki. When I talked to him in person at the last Seattle VR hackathon, he shared his contagious passion for forging international alliances among VR communities. I haven’t met anybody who better understands what it takes to make a hackathon successful.
I’ve been messaging back and forth with Greg on Facebook, asking for his take on what’s happening in Vancouver’s VR community. He’s been talking to people in Vancouver for awhile about launching a Vancouver hackathon, but such an event has yet to materialize. Perhaps this Cascadia Innovation Corridor idea could move things along.
“There is some great stuff happening [in Vancouver] but the scene is still kinda literally ‘provincial,'” Greg said, “They are able to get developers from other countries who can far more easily get a visa for Canada.”
Here’s a thought. What if there was a joint Seattle-Vancouver hackathon in some equidistant location, say Mount Vernon? What if some sponsor like Microsoft, whose president Brad Smith is intimately involved with the Cascadia Innovation Corridor concept, shuttled hackathon participants from Seattle and Vancouver to McIntyre Hall?
My worry is that well-intentioned business and government leaders will talk a lot about bringing Vancouver and Seattle closer together, and will focus solely on freeing up legal and infrastructure barriers, believing that those areas alone will magically make everything more innovative. Those are important areas to address for sure, and I for one would love a high-speed train to John Candy’s homeland.
But if you’re really serious about innovation, it really boils down to facilitating lots of mingling among driven, unconventional people then getting the hell out of the room so that the somewhat messy, happenstance process of generating new ideas can take place. I bet there’s enough will to make it happen.