Innovating Along the Edges

If you want innovation, go to Switzerland. According to the Global Innovation Index, the Swiss are the most innovative people on the planet. Next is the U.K., then Sweden. The Dutch are pretty damn innovative, too, coming in at number four. Then you have the good old USA rounding up the top 5.

My fellow Canadians? Less innovative, apparently. We’re at #16. Those damn Luxembourgians and Icelanders even beat us (ranking 9th and 13th respectively). But hey, we beat the Japanese (19) and we’re miles ahead of China (29), Russia (48) and India (81).

Pillars of Innovation

So what makes a country innovative? And, by extension, what lessons can we learn about encouraging innovation generally? 

The publishers of the index look at five pillars of innovation: institutions, human capital and research, infrastructure, market sophistication and business sophistication.

Considering these pillars, it makes sense that the better off the country, the more innovative it will be. These are the countries that can invest in education and the infrastructure needed to support innovation. I would also add risk-taking to the prerequisites of innovation. I suspect that may be why my fellow Canadians are less innovative on average than Americans.

But, if you talk to Sandy Pentland, there is another factor to consider: physics. Specifically, social physics.

The Physics of Innovation

If we look at innovative environments, the most successful example is a city. Some cities are hotbeds of innovation. New York, for example, or San Francisco, or Boston, continually crank out more innovative ideas per person than most places you could name. Why are cities more innovative, per capita, than rural regions? Sure, there are aspects of the five pillars there: good universities, lots of smart people, sophisticated marketers. But the main reason may come down to the nature of networks you find in a city.

Alex “Sandy” Pentland just happens to live in an innovative city: Boston. And he works at MIT, one of the most innovative institutions in the world. There he heads up perhaps the single most innovative department, the Entrepreneurship Program at MIT’s Media Lab. So it’s fair to say that Pentland knows a thing or two about innovation. But what really fascinates Pentland is the way people connect -- and, by doing so, spread ideas. This is what he refers to as “social physics.”

Some cities are innovative because they promote a certain type of network connectivity. In order for innovative ideas to spread, there needs to be two types of connection: exploration and engagement.

The first offers a clue to why cities may be particularly innovative. Sparks of creativity tend to come from interface areas, or the edges of social groups, where different ideas and viewpoints come into contact with each other.

If you’re surrounded by people who look, speak and think the same way you do, you get an “echo chamber.”  There is no diversity in your exploration. But if you’re in an environment that lends itself to encountering diverse ideas and points of view, your exploratory connections become “mash-ups” of innovation.

As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.” But you can only see that “something” if you’re in an environment that allows connections.

Back to those Swiss

So, the five pillars of innovation aside, perhaps the Swiss advantage in innovation comes from the fact that it’s a pretty small country that has eight million people and four official languages. Also, 74% of those people live in a city.  That mean’s that there are lots of social “edges” coming into contact with each other.

Once they settle on a language, I’m guessing the Swiss have some pretty interesting conversations.

3 comments about "Innovating Along the Edges".
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  1. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, September 22, 2015 at 12:29 p.m.

    Great stuff !

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 22, 2015 at 4:27 p.m.

    Agreed, Leonard, interesting article and thoughts. Sort of reminds me of some of the debates we keep having on Media Post. Diversity of views is far more stimulating than everyone mouthing the "party line".

  3. Johan Schlasberg from IDstories AB, September 26, 2015 at 1:45 p.m.

    A general comment in the Swedish innovation discussion is that "we" are good at R&D but less good at developing that into growing companies. My guess, as a serial innovator, is that many here are quite risk aversive and that we would be more successful if we had more early adopters. It is an attitude we have to get better at.

    Early adopters are a crucial asset for any innovation. They help you get better.

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