Encouraging Innovation

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jan 29, 2012    •    937 Views

“Steve had this firm belief that the right kind of building can do great things for a culture.” The Steve is Steve Jobs and the building is Pixar’s headquarters. (The quote came from Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs)

The usual Hollywood studio with a network of buildings used for different tasks? Jobs said no. Instead the philosophy shaping Pixar’s architecture would be “random encounters.” Offices, the cafe, mailboxes, all took people to the central atrium. Even going the rest room, design would ensure that people bumped into each other for spontaneous collaboration.

Discussing how we generate new ideas, in the New Yorker, science writer Jonah Lehrer refers to the Jobs approach. Whereas the conventional wisdom said brainstorming in supportive groups worked best, scientific research concluded otherwise. A kind, affirming brainstorming meeting produced less than one that had some tension, some opposition. And, the Jobs concept worked optimally.

Our bottom line? For business and for government, it is tough to orchestrate innovation. Instead, by creating the appropriate incentives, we can depend on “the power of surprise.”

The Economic Lesson

During 1939, in a garage, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started a new firm. Also in a garage, several decades later Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started Apple. Yes, Walt Disney worked in his uncle’s garage and Mattel, the toy company that makes Barbie dolls began in a garage. Google did not begin in a garage but they did use one.

Explaining “creative destruction,” economist Joseph Schumpeter said that economic growth depends on the pain of old industries dying and new ones taking their place. Maybe, because they are undefined and unconstrained, garages are ideal for the innovation that leads to new industries.

An Economic Question: In which types of classes and classrooms do students seem to be most innovative?

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