Monday, January 2, 2012

Libraries as a Cradle of Innovation

Having recently finished a book by Frans Johansson called The Medici Effect (2004), January seems like a good time to talk about the germination of ideas. Fresh year, fresh ideas.

Johansson's central thesis is that innovation springs from the intersection of ideas that he calls the Medici Effect. Using a broad range of examples, he illustrates that the most profound innovations have been the result of different fields of study and practice coming together to create an explosive transformation in thinking and problem solving. Through a fairly broad exploration of this idea, the author suggests that people must let go of their assumptions, surround themselves with diversity, and self-educate. In fact, these behaviours are considered important prerequisites for successful innovation.

For months now, I have been mulling over the role of libraries as places where "ideas intersect". It nicely aligns with Johansson's idea of intersectional innovations that are born from interdisiplinary exploration. The unexpected is much more likely to emerge when people of diverse backgrounds collaborate. According to Johansson, the convergence of science, the leap of computational power and the global movement of people are forces that stimulate the creation of unexpected ideas. Indeed, this might help explain the rapid and accelerating state of "innovation" we have seen in recent decades.

If we take a step back from our jobs as library professionals and think about the role of libraries - whether they are public, corporate or academic - we can see that central to their purpose in modern culture is providing a place for ideas to converge. If we look at libraries from this perspective, it becomes much easier for library professionals to adapt to changes in the field of publishing. For example, the rapid adoption of ebooks does not negate the function of the library. It may stimulate change, but it does not lesson the role of the library.

While schools provide formalized educational opportunities, they are not the hub of all innovation. As Johansson points out, most successful innovators share a noteworthy attribute - they are self-taught. Libraries, whether virtually or physically, provide a place for people to come together and share ideas. If innovation is a valued component of our global culture and we look to it to help us solve the myriad of problems that face us, the role of libraries has never been more important. However, it will take some library innovators to push the boundaries of what defines libraries in order to lead the way.

The new Surrey City Centre library in British Columbia provides a relevant example of how libraries can bring people together with the "Human Library" project. People with very specific backgrounds and expertise will lend themselves to others, within the walls of the library. This may be seen as the first step in an exciting movement towards the further development of libraries as the hub of intersecting ideas.

Echoing in my head is the voice of Daniel Quinn's telepathic gorilla , Ishmael, telling his human pupil:

"Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward...but you must be inventive - if it's worthwhile to you. If you care to survive...You're an inventive people, aren't you? You pride yourselves on that, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Then Invent." **




* Johansson, F. (2004). The Medici Effect: breaking through insights at the intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures. Boston: Harvard Business School.

**Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael: an adventure of the mind and spirit. New York: Bantam, p. 250


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