Steven Johnson and the Origin of Innovation
Saturday’s Auditorium Series speaker Steven Johnson started the day off with a funny story about cholera.
No, really. The story, which he researched for his book The Ghost Map, depicted John Snow researching the cholera epidemic in 1850s London. In a eureka moment, Snow realizes that water, not miasma, carries cholera; stops the cholera epidemic; and saves London.
Except that’s not how it happened. Johnson started researching and found that the whole story was untrue, and that the research had actually started six years earlier. Snow’s revelation resulted from a combination of long-term research, a large amount of data on deaths that had become public, and a collaborator who was connected to the community. These three factors—long-term research, good data, and collaboration—are key in all innovation.
Referring to the room as a tech-savvy audience, Johnson described the first of thee factors—the slow hunch—in terms of libraries. He stated that libraries are wonderful breeding grounds for slow hunches, where people can explore something without really knowing how it will come out. He went on to describe the power of open platforms in allowing innovation to evolve. The third key factor, the power of diversity—that the best innovators had the largest amount of diversity and expertise among their friends— highlights the need for librarians to get out of the echo chamber and seek diverse connections in order to get a broad perspective on any issue.
Johnson highlighted the coffeehouse, stating, “The coffeehouse was the physical location of the Enlightenment.” Coffeehouses are multidisciplinary spaces that, like coworking, encourage the cross-pollination of ideas—and why shouldn’t libraries take on this role?
Johnson left the crowd with the the challenge to make libraries more coffeehouse-like, embrace the web, and make libraries louder and encourage connections. He ended his talk by stating, “Chance favors the connected mind.”
JAIME HAMMOND is reference and outreach librarian at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Connecticut.