Friday, February 4, 2011

Where do ideas happen?

Not where they're supposed to! At least, that's the impression of Douglas Coupland in his new book "You Know Nothing of My Work!, who points out:

So here is Bill Gates and all these people going off ... trying to figure out what happens next. What happens next is that they didn't think of Google. They didn't think of social networking. And they didn't think of the iPhone. Ideas don't happen where they're supposed to.

Actually, I think that Coupland has this one wrong. All of those ideas pretty much happened in the same Silicon-Valley-influenced neighborhoods that gave birth to the personal computer generation that Bill Gates has been so closely involved with. For a lot of good reasons, ideas do happen in the same places: neighborhoods of diversity, with strong traditions in particular fields, where there are physical and social meeting places that are conducive to great conversations and where there is an institutional infrastructure in place to support the gestation of the ideas that are born out of those great conversations; and where there is sufficient opportunity for the mobility of talent so that different minds can meet and create new futures. Thomas Friedman got it wrong: the world is not flat when it comes to great ideas!

What is different, and why Bill Gates did not invent Google, Social Networking, the iPhone, etc., is that although the places were the same, the conversations were different, and most important they involved different people. If you're talking the same smart Microsoft people every day, on the same swell Microsoft campus, you're not likely to be talking with those other people who are on the margins, often invisible, and yet, as a result, are more apt to be leading the next revolution. We can all learn from Pixar's Brad Bird, who directed The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille, who said "Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing it that nobody's listening to." That was a good way, in his opinion, to get ideas that would change his industry -- Mr. Gates' industry as well!

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