Incubation: How Simmering Ideas Lead to Breakthrough Innovation

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In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, he illustrates seven distinct dynamics of innovation, and one key principle that propels innovation across vast areas of study. Breakthrough innovation is less likely to occur when a scientist is alone in his lab but through vast idea networks that connect and collide with one another. Innovation is more likely to occur in a coffee house among conversations, interdisciplinarccccy methods, and by conducting aggressive aggregated research. According to Johnson:

Like any other thought, a hunch is simply a network of cells firing inside your brain in an organized pattern. But for that hunch to blossom into something more substantial, it has to connect with other ideas. The hunch requires an environment where surprising new connections can be forged: the neurons and synapses of the brain itself, and the larger cultural environment that the brain occupies.

The metropolitan city defines this context in the same way that a coral reef nurtures a vast biodiversity compared to the same area of empty sea. Urban environments that are tightly networked through which countless interactions take place nurture and propel innovation in these contexts. It’s also evident that when one discipline comes into contact with ideas from another, more innovation takes place. Collaboration nurtures innovation but what if you were to turn this back on its head, and go the opposite? Could an individual come up with a breakthrough by herself? Of course she could. All she needs to do is create an intelligently designed platform in which her questions could be explored in depth. But she has to allow these ideas to coincide. What if you could consolidate all of your ideas into one unified platform? What could you actually do on a level independent of a coffee house? Sure, you can probably bring your ideas to an actual innovation factory but what would happen if you let your slow hunch burn into your own innovation platform? You ideas are simply the result of the convergence of other ideas.

The slow hunch suggests that ideas simmer over time. Again groundbreaking innovations are not like flashes of insight but slowly evolving liquid networks within your stream of consciousness. This process is psychological. Perhaps the idea for this book started to burn when I was a junior in college and I first discovered the idea of the postmodern while reading Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was fascinated by the idea of self-reflexivity, a dynamic in which a work becomes aware of itself and its form, taking winks at the reader (or viewer if you’re watching a film), indicating that the work has become conscious of itself as a work or art or literature. This draws attention to the producer’s creative process. Frederico Fellini’s prolific film, 8 ½ is a great example of this idea at work, in which the film that the protagonist is struggling to make in the story is actually the film that we are watching. Films likeAdaptation and Being John Malkovich are also good examples of this dynamic. It creates a unique paradox in which we can see versions of reality that exist within certain “frames”. It’s a movie in a movie. Hold this thought, as I go back to it frequently—and this gets particularly fascinating when explored through the lens of metacognition. Metacognition is having astute awareness about the way you think. Neuro-linguistic programming utilizes meta-states and reframing to achieve better results.

To this day I’m fascinated by modernism and idea of the postmodern. I often visit San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to incubate my ideas and to get inspired. It works every time. This is because art drives the human spirit. Steve Jobs had an astute artistic sensibility which was in direct proportion to his obsessive perfectionism. But he made breathtaking products because he was inspired to change the world through his art. When I visit MOMA I’m often intrigued at how the art draws attention to itself, questioning its own form. A lot of people simply don’t get abstract expressionism or surrealism and merely call these works ‘weird.’ But what’s interesting to me is the process itself. Abstract expressionism is more subjective in form—allowing those who experience the art to draw their own conclusions, feelings, and assertions about exactly what that piece expresses. This is the gift of art. Modernism is brilliant because the art questions and explores its own form. Much of the art seems to express the irony between chaos and order. This draws attention to the creative innovation process itself—because creativity is nurtured through chaos. It is nurtured through the unconscious mind, which is not only abstract, but unknown. Therefore design intelligence refines the process, refining the product of that which is created through initially chaotic and unknown circumstances. Often, these creative hunches and innovations happen over time.

Your ideas brew over time in a slow pace and you should keep good records of all of them. When an idea gets stuck in your head your subconscious tends to gather evidence that supports this idea. Hunches work when they’re connected to other bits of information and experience. We see what our mind wants us to see but sometimes the work happens subconsciously, or in the background. This is why you have to constantly nurture your ideas. Keep your commonplace notebook handy. Write notes and revise them often. You will start to form new ideas based on what you explore within this platform.

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