Friday, April 13, 2012

Creative Collisions and Collaborations

Telstar 1
Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc.
 AT and T Archives and History Center
New York Times

Walter Isaacson, in his article "Inventing the Future" (New York Times, April 6, 2012), reviews Jon Gertner's recent book in the history of science and technology, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. From what the review tells us, Gertner's account of Bell Labs' knack for innovations would appear to offer support for some of Jonah Lehrer's ideas that we've recently looked into:
The lesson of Bell Labs is that most feats of sustained innovation cannot and do not occur in an iconic garage or the workshop of an ingenious inventor. They occur when people of diverse talents and mind-sets and expertise are brought together, preferably in close physical proximity where they can have frequent meetings and serendipitous encounters.

Recall that Steve Jobs intentionally redesigned the Pixar company's layout to ensure that employees would come into contact by chance and inadvertently exchange ideas that changed ideas? He had a precedent in Bell Labs:
Bell Labs concentrated on helping the military during World War II. But in the middle of the war, Bell Labs began moving to a new campus in Murray Hill, N.J., and [Bell Labs research director, Mervin] Kelly began to create interdisciplinary teams that threw theorists and engineers together into the same work spaces. "By intention, everyone would be in one another's way," Gertner writes. Among the teams was one doing solid-state research. It included [physics theoretician William] Shockley and [physics experimentalist Walter] Brattain. Kelly recruited John Bardeen, a very quiet theorist, to join the group, but there was no vacant office, so Bardeen decided to share space with Brattain, the experimentalist. This was a smart idea. Gertner describes how innovations came not just from new theories but from linking them to advances made by the lab's experimental chemists and metallurgists who were creating a revolution in materials. "Indeed, without new materials," Gertner writes, "Shockley would have spent his career trapped in a prison of elegant theory."

As Gertner points out, collaborative work was essential, and not only for generating new ideas:
"If an idea begat a discovery, and if a discovery begat an invention, then an innovation defined the lengthy and wholesale transformation of an idea into a technological product (or process) meant for widespread practical use. Almost by definition, a single person, or even a single group, could not alone create an innovation. The task was too variegated and involved."

The hardest trick, as Steve Jobs points out, is figuring out how to sustain an organization's creativity, and Isaacson notes that Gertner's book looks at this point:
Steve Jobs once said that the most difficult and important thing to create was not an innovative product but a great organization that could continually create innovative products. That required joining creative people with product designers and great engineers so that imagination and technology could be connected. For much of the 20th century, Bell Labs played that role. It showed the value of having theoreticians, researchers, developers and engineers all huddled together. "People had to be near one another," Gertner writes. "Phone calls alone wouldn't do." Mervin Kelly even created branches of Bell Labs at the phone company's factories so that the theoreticians and scientists could be closely involved with the manufacturing workers.

From my own job at Ewha, where we expat instructors exchange ideas on better teaching, I know by experience the importance of people working together to work better. This hasn't always been easy for me since I'm a bit of a loner, but it's usually been for the best.

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At 1:04 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Sounds like what we are trying to do with International Authors--using the internet as the medium for "serendipitous encounters."

At 5:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The internet is good for that as well . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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