Book Review: Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas

    By: PDMA Headquarters on Oct 02, 2013

    Book Review: Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas 

    By: Richard OgleBoston : Harvard Business School Press , 2007 . 303 + x pages.
    Review by: Ruediger Klein

    Innovation is everywhere—or so it seems. Finally, after productivity, marketing, and quality had their decades, innovation and creativity have become the focus of academics and professionals alike. Witness numerous books, the full-press coverage of product design and innovation in business magazines, and the emergence of master's of business administration (MBA) programs with a minor in innovation and you cannot help but imagine a world where innovation is a discipline that can be studied, learned, and applied by professionals as needed.

    Within the field of innovation, subfields are beginning to form. There is the field of personal idea generation, which is rooted in practices of inventors and described in books such as Michalko (2006) or De Bono (2000). Then there is the field of discovery focusing on generating product ideas; using the voice of the customer (Burchill and Hepner-Brodie, 1997); applying ethnography or consumer immersion, which has recently become very popular; or even looking into the product structure itself for inspiration (Goldenberg and Mazursky, 2002). The field of design, of course, has always been about turning creative ideas into desirable and usable products (see, e.g., Norman, 2002).

    The emergence of the Internet, transforming the way humans connect and interact, created a new field at the intersection of creativity and network science. Both of the two reviewed books, Smart World and The Medici Effect, focus on what happens when these “idea spaces” are connected. An idea space is “a domain or world viewed from the perspective of the intelligence embedded in it, intelligence that we can use—consciously or not—both to solve our everyday problems and to make the creative leaps that lead to breakthrough” (Smart World, p. 16).

    The Medici Effect should be suitable for executives and professionals, whereas Smart World aims more at researchers and scholars of innovation.

    The Medici Effect follows in the vein of books such as The Tipping Point (Gladwell, 2000), The Go Point (Useem, 2006), and The Long Tail(Anderson, 2006), centering around one central idea. It therefore follows the common pattern of establishing what the idea is, why the idea is important, and, finally, how the reader might use the idea.

    Unlike what the title might suggest, The Medici Effect is not about a powerful and influential Florentine family from the 13th to the 17th century. Instead, it is about intersections. Frans Johansson defines an intersection as a place where concepts from different fields combine to result in intersectional ideas. Innovations, which are realized intersectional (ideas unlike those based on directional ideas, or ideas within one field), may be surprising, may take leaps in new directions, or may open up entirely new fields.

    Intersections are important not only because they have the potential of producing qualitatively different results from innovations within fields but also because quantity leads to quality. In other words, innovators do not produce because they are successful, but they are successful because they produce. We learn, for example, that Pablo Picasso produced 20,000 pieces of art; Albert Einstein wrote more than 240 papers; Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a cantata every week; Thomas Edison filed a record of 1,039 patents; and Richard Branson has started 250 companies.

    Intersections, then, are relevant for innovation, because basic mathematics dictate that there are always more combinations of items than items to start with. On this subject, Smart World cites Metcalfe's Law as the value of a network increasing exponentially by the number of computers connected to it. Recent controversy surrounding the application of Metcalfe's Law to larger networks with less than exponential growth in value would have fit very nicely into Richard Ogle's definition of communities of practice. According to his arguments, communities with strong ties exhibit exponential value growth, whereas those with weak ties exhibit less value growth. This is because not every member of every community will make meaningful ties with every member of all other communities.

    This leads us to the question of how one should prepare for innovation in the world of intersections and idea spaces. If one knows already that the fertile grounds for innovation will lie outside of any one particular field, how much should one become an expert in a field before stepping out? Clearly, both authors demonstrate that becoming an expert in a field can make it more difficult to break out of established patterns of thought, but do intersectional innovations require as much expertise as directional innovations?

    While neither author provides a definite guideline, associative barriers, which are developed while becoming an expert in a field, are the very things that allow the human mind to function given the level of information overload and sheer complexity of the tasks that we face daily. The world around us contains an embedded intelligence, which Ogle calls the extended mind. What will make an individual fit for innovation is a certain level of expertise in one field and then action to “step into the intersection” (Smart World, p. 183) by exploring other occupations. A good innovator then has a navigational skill in “surfing the networked idea-spaces of the extended mind and locating powerful forms of embedded intelligence” (Smart World, p. 67).

    In Smart World, Ogle sets out with the ambitious goal of defining a new science of ideas through a series of nine laws:

    • 1

    The law of tipping points

    • 2

    The law of the fit get rich

    • 3

    The law of the fit get fitter

    • 4

    The law of spontaneous generation

    • 5

    The law of navigation

    • 6

    The law of hotspots

    • 7

    The law of small-world networks

    • 8

    The law of integration

    • 9

    The law of minimal effort

    This definition of a new science is to help us “respond to radical innovations more quickly and intelligently than before. It may even help us create some of our own” (Smart World, p. 6). Although a full discussion of the nine laws is beyond the scope of this review, two laws in particular illustrate the concepts.

    In the “law of tipping points,” Ogle shows that networks can “self-organize” (Medici Effect, p. 20), which in itself leads to a discontinuity allowing innovation. Tipping points, contrary to physical systems, do not exhibit a direct, quantifiable relationship between cause and effect. The “law of spontaneous creation” says that in an open, dynamic network, potentially meaningful relationships or patterns are created spontaneously, emergent, and self-transforming (Smart World, p. 121).

    The two books are similar in scope and execution. What one author calls a field, the other calls an idea space; what one calls anintersection, the other calls a search space or relationship. In each chapter, abstraction and application rules follow illustrative stories. The strength of the supporting stories is the distinguishing factor of this type of business book.

    Some of the intriguing stories mentioned in The Medici Effect involve a monkey controlling a computer by using his brain, the creation of the Cherokee written language, goats producing spider web material, Marcus Samuelsson's rise as chef of New York's restaurant Aquavit through unique food combinations, Richard Garfield's quest to create a board game called Magic, and Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. On the other hand, Smart World serves up the Dave Brubeck Quartet's album Time Out, Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, the discovery of DNA, Barbie's conception from a German tart flaunting sex, the entrepreneur Johannes Gutenberg, and Frank Gehry's architecture, among others.

    Ogle develops the stories in Smart World fully, sometimes to the point where relevancy becomes questionable, whereas Johansson draws on short examples in The Medici Effect to support its main points. Both authors cite heavily from a large number of references, but Ogle in particular goes out of his way to quote from and summarize content created by other authors, both supporting and disagreeing with his theories. This is to be expected, as his aspiration for the book is to form the basis for a new scientific discipline.

    The books are put out by the same publisher. Whereas The Medici Effect is a quick read for a plane ride, Smart World would be better suited for summer reading. However, because both authors are primarily writers, the prose is fluent and the stories are entertaining. The average executive may find the discourse interesting but will have to be patient to find specifics to apply in his or her business practice.

    Released: October 2, 2013, 2:40 pm | Updated: October 30, 2013, 2:03 pm
    Keywords: PDMA Blog

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