Today’s food for thought: The best ideas aren’t conceived, nor developed, in isolation.
Take a look at the well-publicized example of William Kamkwamba harnessing the power of windmills in his village in Malawi. The story goes like this: after having to drop out of school, Kamkwamba read about windmills in a textbook he found in a nearby library. He built his first crude windmill at the age of 14, and then continued to modify the design over the years, utilizing discarded materials such as tractor parts and bike frames. Now, not only does his family have electricity, but his neighbors do as well.
Although Kamkwamba was the one to bring the idea to his village, it was by no means an isolated effort – in the grander scheme, that is. Everyone from the original inventor of the windmill to the creators of paper to the artist who rendered the windmill to the person who brought the textbook to Malawi, etc., had to come before him. Kamkwamba was insightful enough to identify the need, and then make the connection, and then execute.
This illustrates the concept of the collective brain, which Matthew Ridley outlines in a TED talk called “When ideas have sex.” If you have 15 minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching. Taking us through an accelerated historical journey, Ridley shows how the evolution of the exchange of goods and services has led to an overall improvement in our living standards. His basic premise is that innovation ultimately comes down to collaboration. “What’s relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas and how well they’re cooperating, not how clever the individuals are,” he says. But what’s most exciting? Ideas have the ability to meet and mate like never before, and the potential to positively impact the world is greater than it’s ever been.
Author Steven Johnson also supports collaborative communities, believing that ideas don’t just come out of nowhere. New ideas are inevitably built upon old ones. In this engaging video illustration for his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Johnson encourages us to recognize conditions that spark change. Patterns, the slow hunch, trial and error, serendipity, patience, liquid networks, idea germination, and more are all necessary to make an idea come to fruition. But perhaps the most poignant point (and one Ridley would most likely love) is the notion that modern innovation is possible because our predecessors “created a space where ideas could swap, mingle and make new forms.” Again, it all comes down to sharing.
Between evolution and technology, the spreading of good ideas has never been easier. But how can we generate more, and communicate them effectively to others? What tools and resources are already out there that are increasing the exchange of information? And where can we fill in the gaps?