Where Do Ideas Come From?


Hint: Ask your Mother…Nature

Cities and their surrounding environments are like coral reefs, providing a common connective structure for various subcultures. It is here, in the interaction of diverse views and conversations, where ideas are born. And, like abandoned ships that become rich homes for sea life at the bottom of the ocean, innovations tend to thrive in discarded urban environments.

One example is the movement in downtrodden industrial/urban downtown areas to create arts-based community regeneration. This arts-based approach has created the opportunity to engage entire communities in successful neighborhood revitalization efforts. The results have included additional affordable housing and highly productive commercial success born from this new creative draw that attracts new restaurants, shops and cultural events (i.e. new ideas grow in old buildings). There are many examples of cities that have benefited from this arts-based community regeneration including, but not limited to: L.A., San Francisco, Oakland, Detroit and Brooklyn.

The worldwide paragon of innovative ideas is Silicon Valley. It is a giant interactive, symbiotic ecosystem of cities, companies, venture capital firms and universities—where people give birth to new ideas and businesses everyday. And like nature, it’s also paradoxical. As Darwin famously pointed out, life evolves through symbiotic cooperation and competitive survival of the fittest (i.e. the most adaptive). Enterprises of all types have an opportunity to create and cultivate a similar ecosystem of ideas and innovation. Today’s most disruptive ideas that screw up the old way of thinking take shape in environments at the edge of chaos and order and in places of noise and error (think of all the breakthrough innovations birthed in “messy” labs). It is in environments such as these that unexpected connections, discoveries and breakthroughs are made.

Ecosystems: The key is to create ecosystem environments in the workplace that allow people to meet socially and accidentally. Take the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) for example, which built a state of the art biomedical research center in a redeveloped neighborhood in San Francisco. The top scientist who runs the main center strategically designed the building so that the lunch and coffee rooms were stationed at the center of each floor. They also designed common use lab cleanup sites where lab beakers, etc. are cleaned in huge washers. Previously each lab had their own clean sites but with this change scientists and lab assistants now meet more frequently in common areas. The express purpose was to create a social petri dish (or rather a number of petri dishes around the building) that would create an environment for connection and conversations that often result in new collaborations and unexpected ideas. Scientists working on different research projects in various disciplines are constantly meeting randomly and exchanging issues, ideas and solutions that dramatically benefit their work. Smart! UCSF—Mission Bay has attracted a growing and collaborative ecosystem of more than 70 bioscience start-ups, nine established pharmaceutical and biotech companies, 10 venture capital firms and top scientific institutions.

Every leader needs to be asking:  “How can we create a highly interactive work environment (with internal/external exchange) creating enough order and structure to make things work, mixed with just enough room for creative chaos to allow happy accidents and breakthroughs to emerge and grow?“