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Some Environments Foster Innovation - What Should Your Workplace Look Like?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 30, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Timothy Prestero and a team of researchers looking for abundant resources in mid-sized African villages found that while experience with advanced technology was meager, people were highly skilled at keeping their old cars running. And that discovery saved lives.

Premature babies who would thrive if they were kept warm often die of hypothermia. But an expensive incubator is useless if it breaks down and no one has the expertise or spare parts to fix it. So Prestero, co founder of Design That Matters, and his team produced an incubator made of car parts, and village residents were quite adept at keeping it in working order.

Steven Johnson offers the automotive incubator design as an example of how innovations come about. While we often think of innovations as epiphanies and flashes of inspiration, he says, they are more likely to be ideas and realizations that get cobbled together. Johnson, a prolific author and scholar of complexity science, talks about the environments that give rise to unusual levels of innovation in a provocative talk on TED. His newest book is Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. "An idea," he says, "is a network on the most elemental level...a new network of neurons in our brains, firing in sync with one another, in a configuration that has never formed before."

And what influences encourage that kind of brain activity? The seventeenth century English coffee houses with their diverse patrons, vigorous conversations and the cross-fertilization of ideas that fostered the Enlightenment, provide an historical illustration. Of course, Johnson observes, it helped that people were drinking coffee and tea rather than the beer and wine they usually imbibed to avoid polluted water: When you switch from depressants to stimulants, your ideas get better. And never underestimate the benefit of barely bridledchaos. Johnson displays a Hogarth painting of a rowdy Whig political dinner at a tavern and cracks, "this is what your office should look like."

Johnson cites Kevin Dunbar's research on scientific breakthroughs that percolate as scientists connect with those from other fields and share ideas and hunches. And to emphasize that some discoveries and innovations have long incubation periods, he tells the surprising story of how geeks listening to sounds from Sputnik in 1957 developed insights we benefit from today when a GPS points us to the nearest Starbucks. Listen to the TED talk here.

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