The Myth of the Lone Innovator

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Thomas Edison's team with title text

What is it about the gathering places of creative people that intrigues us so much?

We see innovations take shape in the coffeehouses of 18th century London, Hollywood in the 1930's, Edison's Menlo Park complex, TED Talks, bell labs of the 1950's, NASA in the 1960's and other places in history. What's the deal?

Each of these instances have produced not only great products, but have greatly jump-started and driven significant innovations. In some cases, they have not only created good things as a group but have also created a spin-off of significant satellite groups and individuals.

In our culture, we have an image of the lone inventor/innovator toiling away in his lab or workshop and the prodigious coder creating software solutions in their dorm room or basement. Brilliant authors and philosophers doing their work alone in rooms lined with bookshelves and piles of books and papers all around.

These people do exist, but they are the exception, not the norm.

Humans are social creatures. We need interaction to spur creativity and competition to push us to discover greater innovations.

Innovator, Thomas Edison 


Consider the case of the glass makers of Venice:

After the fall of Constantinople, a group of glassmakers from Turkey migrated across the Mediterranean. They settled in Venice, where they began practicing their trade in the prosperous new city growing out of the marshes on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.

Their skills at blowing glass quickly created a new luxury good for the merchants of the city to sell around the globe. But lucrative as it was, glassmaking was not without liability. The melting point of silicon dioxide required furnaces burning at temperatures above 500 degrees, and Venice was a city built almost entirely out of wooden structures. In the year 1291, in an effort to both retain the skills of the glassmakers and protect public safety, the city government sent the glassmakers into exile once again-- only this time, their journey was a short one—one mile across the Venetian Lagoon to the island of Murano. 
Unwittingly, the Venetian city fathers had created an innovation hub: By concentrating the glassmakers on a single island the size of a small city neighborhood, they triggered a surge of creativity, giving birth to an environment that possessed what economists call “information spillover.” The density of Murano meant that new ideas were quick to flow through the entire population. They perfected a new kind of clear, durable glass that would turn out to be one of the most important materials of the next 800 years, used in spectacles, telescopes, microscopes, test tubes, and eventually cameras and projectors.   

The story of Murano is a reminder of how closely tied innovation is to communities. The connection between creativity and the density and diversity of groups of people who have similar interest often happens in cities, but due to the internet, this community no longer stops there. The capacity to connect with others across the globe is remarkable, and once again a reminder of the importance of community with relevance to innovation.

Chris Anderson in his Ted Talk: How YouTube is Driving innovation gives some great examples of people in New York and Tokyo share their innovative dance moves via videos and each time one of them creates a great move someone else has to post another video topping that move with something even more fantastic 

The “lone genius” myth of innovation is precisely that—a myth. 

Transformative ideas almost always take shape out of diverse networks. Today those networks can be digital ones, but their physical grounding in real-world communities remains essential to the story. 
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