The Secret of Innovation
I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Stephen Johnson called The Invention of Air. On the surface it’s about Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian minister who “discovered” oxygen, and who also went on to help advise the creators of our republic on how to structure our government. But really it is about the story of how a series of amazing innovations happened in a short period of time, and some thoughtful reflections on what brought about that creative burst.
It turns out that Priestley was consumed by the question of what constituted air since he was a small child. He kept playing with the question in many different ways, experimenting, reflecting and experimenting again. But Johnson posits that what finally helped him make his leap into “discovery” was the community of innovators that he was surrounded by – people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. (Johnson offers this little interesting historical nugget: in the 165 letters that Jefferson and Adams exchanged in their lives, Franklin is mentioned 5 times, George Washington, 3 times, Alexander Hamilton, twice; Joseph Priestley on the other hand was featured no fewer than 52 times!)
Priestley was part of a group of experimenters who gathered at the time that coffee houses were first introduced (thank goodness for coffee!) and who made abundant use of that stimulant to fuel their animated conversations with one another. They were the epitome of what I call “learning communities” because they joined together in a common spirit of exploration and shared knowledge. They encouraged and inspired each other, and it would be hard to disentangle which person is fully accountable for which achievement.
In our work at the UUA we are trying to help create and stimulate similar learning communities. We are beginning to experiment with some “Innovator Circles” – putting people together who are engaged in particular kinds of innovation to help learn from one another, and thereby to help us all learn.
What if all of us were able to put aside our instinctive competitiveness and fears of exposure and failure (all quite natural, by the way) and joined wholeheartedly in the spirit of learning communities? What new innovations, in the world, and of the spirit, might come?