Linknotes April 16, 2010

After a couple of weeks of travel and focused work, I am now catching my breath a bit. Linknotes provides me a way of getting back into the flow when original content is not yet fully developed.

Innovation redefined and relocated
A recent lament in the press on the unexpected consequences of globalization made the observation that as the US outsourced what it believed to be lower-content manufacturing tasks, it also was outsourcing the country’s industries’ basis for innovation.

Process improvements on the shop floor or in the call center naturally took place where the work was being done. Managers at companies who outsourced the work could no longer observe how work was being done and were outside of the stream of information that provided the data and insights that would support positive chain and improvement. Those outsourced jobs are now beginning to provide the base for innovation leadership by companies and industries in other places.

The Economist has a special report in its latest issue on the increasing momentum and character of innovation from sources in other countries. Observing that this is becoming a huge wave, they credit the phenomenon on bigger visions.

Why are countries that were until recently associated with cheap hands now becoming leaders in innovation? The most obvious reason is that the local companies are dreaming bigger dreams. Driven by a mixture of ambition and fear—ambition to bestride the world stage and fear of even cheaper competitors in, say, Vietnam or Cambodia—they are relentlessly climbing up the value chain.

In addition, the Economist notes that these are places where brainpower is plentiful and free from the burdens of legacy systems. As a result, strategic planning by multinationals now actively and intentionally locates major R&D efforts in these other developing countries – a practice called “polycentric innovation.” While enjoying the energies of foreign innovators, this may be led more by the need to comprehend, understand and market to the huge emerging markets that these countries hold.

Among the impacts of these developments are the reversal of the traditional global supply chain, the redefinition of innovation as incremental improvements provide accessible goods to the huge base of the market pyramid, and the redesign of management systems themselves.

The Rest saving the West
The week provides interesting correlations in items like the Dx1W competition – a competition for designers, artists, scientists, makers and thinkers in developing countries to provide solutions for First World problems.

We have been focus­ing our energy and resources on try­ing to solve our Developing World problems to become more like the First World. But per­haps it is time that we, the so called Third World minds, focused our energy and creativity on solving some of the First World problems. We will have a brighter future to look for­ward to, and per­haps this can help us rethink and approach our cur­rent problems from a different perspective.

Collapse of complexity
At an entirely different scale, we’ve become very interested in the way in which a more mobile workstyle is beginning to affect the way that space and place is planned or provided for work, and more specifically how new innovation may be arising from the casual interaction of free agents working in places that attract them. Laura Forlano, writing in the Urban Omnibus, notes that “coworking is rapidly emerging as a meme for the reorganization of knowledge work.”

This example of the increasing development of coworking spaces is one example. Our earlier comments on the concept of “scenius” are similar. And also this week, Hagel and Brown published their new book on the Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, which also further develops their ideas about “creation spaces.”

The influences of space and place to creation were also explored in an Innovation Camp in Berlin reported on by Tim Leberecht of frog design.

Reflecting on the role of creative spaces for their innovations, they proposed three types of spaces: the mindset (brain space), the location and work environment (physical space), and the network (virtual space).

After reviewing both common practice and other studies on the types of space that support creation, Tom makes a case also for market space. He makes the observation that, “It often goes unrecognized that the innovator’s biggest creative accomplishment may not be to invent a new product or service but to imagine and create a new market.”

Also resonating this week was Clay Shirky’s considerations on the collapse of complex systems. While speaking more to the domain of media, Shirky’s reference to Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies might also have relevance in this context.

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Whether innovation activity moves more fruitfully to a cafe in Kansas City or a company in Katmandu, there seems to be a trend of its moving from a context of complexity to one of self-organizing simplicity. The influences on organizations seeking creation and innovation may be emerging in these alternative places and spaces.

And then these appearing today –

Adam Greenfield on Rework and the City considering the places of work, or the necessity of people coming together in the same place for work.

Greenfield also on the potentials of serendipity, I think relevant also to the concept of self-selecting places for work and back to “scenius.”

He makes reference to Robert Fripp’s “mobile intelligence units,” a nice concept articulated by his sister, here and further defined here as–

The future unit of organization is the small, mobile, and intelligent unit where intelligence is defined as the capacity to perceive rightness, mobile the capacity to act on that perception and small the necessary condition for that action in a contracting world.

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