How 'Liquid Networks' Can Lead to the Next Great Idea

Technological innovation often comes when your hunch collides with someone else's hunch, says best-selling author Steven Johnson. Open collaborative spaces are vital to allowing those hunches to mature into breakthrough moments.

At an 18th Century coffeehouse in London, ship captains, merchants, bankers and politicians -- the power brokers of their time -- gathered to sip caffeine-fueled coffee and tea, discuss their challenges, and come up with innovative ways to solve them.

Some 200 years later, Silicon Valley tech companies are spending wads of cash to lease pricy office space in order to create the equivalent of the coffeehouse, called open collaborative spaces.

But are these efforts paying off?

"I haven't heard the stories of innovation coming out of it -- yet," says Steven Johnson, best-selling author of "Where Good Ideas Come From" and keynote speaker at this week's CITE Conference and Expo in San Francisco.

Playing the Hunches

Johnson is quick to point out, though, that open collaborative spaces are vital to allowing hunches to mature and have a breakthrough moment. "Silicon Valley is the most innovative part of the country by a wide margin and most likely to have the most crazy, open spaces," he says. "It's not an accident."

Silicon Valley, the cradle of innovation, has spawned some of the most powerful companies in the world. Many of these companies, as well as startups, have jumped on the latest fad: wacky workspaces. Part of the reason is to appeal to millennial workers who don't want to dwell in lonely cubicles. Another reason is to spark innovation and beat the competition in the race to fresh ideas.

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The thinking goes that an innovative idea doesn't happen in a vacuum nor in a spontaneous moment of clarity, says Johnson. Rather, the process is a "slow hunch" that evolves over years, and the world has to be ready for the resulting product or service when it finally emerges. The big breakthrough -- when an idea takes real shape -- often needs a "liquid network" like the 18th Century coffeehouse.

"Every idea is fundamentally a network of ideas," Johnson says. "When you create an environment that allows the kinds of serendipitous connections to form, [innovative ideas] are more likely to happen."

How to Create a 'Liquid Network'

Creating a collaborative coffeehouse isn't easy, especially for tech companies. A critical characteristic of the liquid network is having a diversity of disciplines, and it's ideas bouncing between different expertise that so often triggers the big breakthrough. Case-in-point: Steve Jobs combining computer design with a college course on calligraphy.

"What oftentimes turns the hunch into something bigger than a hunch is when your hunch collides with someone else's hunch," Johnson says.

Anti-social techies, however, are notorious for not mixing well with others and don't often venture outside their technical comfort zone. Nevertheless, tech companies are embracing the mobile, collaborative work environment -- and some are indeed seeing a payoff.

AT&T executives, for instance, have given up their offices in favor of open spaces and a backpack. More importantly, AT&T has seen both hard and soft benefits, in the form of higher productivity and happier employees.

"Our objectives start getting met," says Faraz Hoodbhoy, director of outreach, ecosystem and innovation at AT&T, speaking at CITE Conference's breakout session on the next-generation work environment. "We see more projects getting done."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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