Innovation, like falling in love, requires a certain state of mind. As I write this, I am well aware how incredibly nerdy I likely come across. I am not about to suggest a whole rash of poems, novels and films celebrating innovation. But please, bear with me.
A lot of work has been done in the last decade by well respected scientists, like Helen Fisher, on how our brains behave when we are falling in love. Sophisticated functional MRI (fMRI) machines have demonstrated that being madly in love is actually a reasonably good description of the state of our brain when so infatuated. If we have ever felt bewitched, bothered and bewildered when falling in love, it is because we literally were.
I don't need to spend much time discussing how this came to be from an evolutionary biology point of view. Something like falling in love plays a very important evolutionary role in birds, bees, baboons - and humans.
How about innovation and creativity? Are there states of mind, measurable by fMRI and similar scientific tools, which strongly indicate that individuals and groups are solving complex problems and coming up with great new ideas? Are there work and learning environments that are particularly conducive to help people achieve such states of mind? Is there anything that companies, schools and other institutions that have a huge stake in being innovative can do to foster such work and learning environments in their midst?
The answer to all these questions is clearly yes.
The advent of new tools like fMRI, is enabling scientists to begin to study what is happening in the brain when in the kind of high-level cognition state necessary to solve complex problems. By measuring brain activity, scientists have started to map out what the brain does when engaged in activities associated with innovation. There is little doubt that this new discipline will make fast progress in the next decades, tied to the huge advances being made in cognitive neuroscience in general.
But even without the hard, scientific evidence that is yet to come, we already know a lot about the kinds of environments that are particularly conducive to innovation. At the top of the list, almost everyone who has thought about it would put environments like Internet-based social networks - Web 2.0 - that foster collaborative innovation.
In this entry, I don't want to explore whether social networks foster collaborative innovation. This is a common theme in many of my entries. Let's assume they do. The key question I want to explore is one that to this day continues to baffle people. What motivates people to work together as a community for the common good, when there is no direct monetary gain? What drives them to participate in open source communities? Why do they write blogs when they are not getting paid to do so? And in particular, is there a human drive to innovate as a community whose cause we can somehow link to evolutionary biology?
In August of 2005, Kevin Kelly - founding executive editor and now self-described Senior Maverick of Wired - published an excellent article “We are the Web” about the Web and the emerging new culture of mass collaboration. Writing about blogging, he said, "These user-created channels make no sense economically. Where are the time, energy, and resources coming from?" He then proceeded to answer his own question with a term that I have not seen many use but has stuck with me for the last three years: the electricity of participation."
"The electricity of participation nudges ordinary folks to invest huge hunks of energy and time into making free encyclopedias, creating public tutorials for changing a flat tire, or cataloging the votes in the Senate. More and more of the Web runs in this mode. One study found that only 40 percent of the Web is commercial. The rest runs on duty or passion.”
“Coming out of the industrial age, when mass-produced goods outclassed anything you could make yourself, this sudden tilt toward consumer involvement is a complete Lazarus move: ‘We thought that died long ago.’ The deep enthusiasm for making things, for interacting more deeply than just choosing options, is the great force not reckoned 10 years ago. This impulse for participation has upended the economy and is steadily turning the sphere of social networking - smart mobs, hive minds, and collaborative action - into the main event."
The reason electricity of participation so caught my attention is because I sometimes literally feel it when working closely with colleagues as we are creating something particularly important and innovative. I bet you that if neuroscientists were measuring my brain activity by asking me to wear some kind of fancy, hi-tech baseball cap, they would detect that something is going on with me and with the other members of the group similarly engaged in the activity. Human beings like to achieve things together - just watch the behavior of a sports team after a walk-off homer or a sudden-death goal.
Evolution being the elegant science that it is, there must be a deep reason for this behavior, because it is so common. The Web and related social networking technologies are just helping bring this out on a massive scale. There must be something about the human condition that urges us to collaborate, work as a community, solve problems together, and really enjoy doing so.
We are, after all, social animals. The drive to come together for food and security has to be well ingrained, from hunting large animals and setting up villages to starting companies and building cities. We are also competitive animals, as are perhaps all social animals. This drives us to better ourselves and compete as well as collaborate, in our attempt to become alpha members of the group and thus gain the respect of our families, friends, colleagues and the community at large. Strength and other physical skills have clearly played a major role in the past in our drive for leadership and achievement.
But increasingly, so does innovation. It should not surprise us that as we transition into a knowledge economy, the value of innovation and everything that goes with it - deep talent, hard work, continuous learning, expertise, as well as social, communication and organizational skills - will become more and more important, and strongly correlate with economic achievement for individuals, companies, regions and nations. In the end, it is this human drive to succeed that links innovation to the powerful evolutionary forces around us.