The Innovation Engine

We seem to be wired to be able to solve difficult problems, but only in a community where we have support. To create that support, we have throughout history sung songs of heroes around the campfire. We are inspired by movies. Militaries breed close-knit groups and create splendid uniforms and other rituals. We go to church. With a support group, we overcome depression. We set our sports records before a stadium full of humans cheering us on.

Alone on Antarctic ice, we die.

I think people need encouragement to succeed, and it doesn’t take much. You might think you can change the world for the better, and if enough people agree, then you go ahead and do so. (If enough people agree, then you already have changed the world.) But if everyone around you says, “You can’t fight city hall,” then you pack up and go home.

Innovators seem to want to be near other innovators. Wired quotes a study in the American Economic Review that says more than half of US commercial innovation comes from just three areas: California, NY/NJ, and Massachusetts.

To me, this reinforces the idea that positive re-enforcement is required for successful innovation. Other places – by measurement — don’t have a world-changing culture. Innovators in other places are told, “what you’re doing is cool, but no one really needs that and it won’t change things.” (That’s what I was told at the University of Wisconsin.) What the Internet does is let you find people who give you that encouragement. What Croquet does (and to a lesser extent, email, ftp, and wikis), is to let you work with those folks.

Self-help gurus point out that you can improve your internal disposition by walking around with a forced, fake smile. HR folks design exercises in which employees are required to come up with praise for their colleagues, because it really does make them think more positively towards each other. I believe that simply being able to find someone to agree with your cockamamie idea is an important step in realizing your imaginative ideas. Indeed, there is so much content on the Internet, right or wrong, that it is fairly likely you can find pre-existing support for nearly any idea, and who is to say whether it is right or wrong, written by a learned professor or a dog? By simply accessing some sort of (possibly ridiculous) confirmation of your ideas, I think you truly boost your problem-solving ability to make those ideas work.

Working in Silicon Valley or Route 128 may be the best way to validate and inspire yourself, but surely Internet tools are getting better for this purpose as well. Not everyone who is smart and creative lives in these physical zones. And for some of the wilder ideas, the people who can and will support you may be few and far between, and so even if you do live there you may need to turn outside that zone to find support. I think that in some circumstances, getting that support to any degree is more important than quality of the support. So even if Croquet were just barely good enough to effectively work with fellow visionaries, it is still then a powerful engine for innovation. We can create ad hoc virtual innovation zones around whatever ideas on which we mutually choose to concentrate.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

One Comment

  1. I think you’re right about creative versus non-creative locales, and there is empirical evidence to back you up.

    This article caught my eye in 2002, and it still makes sense to me today:


    Its argument (backed up with evidence) is that economic development occurs in places where creative young people want to live, and creative young people want to live in places that are hip. A good proxy of hipness is vegetarian restaurants. A better proxy is the health of the gay community.

    I really like the idea that the best way to encourage economic development in your area is to make gay people welcome and encourage hippie vegetarian restaruanteurs. That’s not what Wal Mart and the NFL and Major League Baseball will tell you — they will tell you that you should subsidize their stores and stadiums to promote growth — but the evidence is strongly in favor of the gays and hippies.

    One quibble: one dies on Antarctica because it’s so freekin’ cold, and there’s nothing to eat! Absence of creative colleagues has precious little to do with it.

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