Get Out of the Echo Chamber to Improve Innovation

Ethan Zuckerman’s great talk from this week’s TED Global conference was just posted – it is well worth watching (the notes for the talk are here on Zuckerman’s blog):

This talk raises an important general point – if we want to be good global citizens, we need to be making more of an effort to discover what’s actually happening around the globe.

This relates to innovation though too. Connecting ideas to each other is the core creative act in innovation. And it is well-documented that we make more creative connections between ideas when we are exposed to a greater diversity of ideas. The problem is that most of us generally interact with people that are quite a bit like us. This greatly limits the diversity of viewpoints and ideas to which we are exposed. Consequently, this constrains our ability to innovate.

Here is how Zuckerman frames the issue:

We tend to use two types of filters to manage the internet – search, which is great at telling us what we want to know, and social, which promises to tell us things that we don’t know we want to know. There’s a lot of people trying to engineer serendipity by taking advantage of the fact that not only are you on the internet, your friends are also on the internet. And if your friends – or just someone with similar interests – finds something that’s interesting, it might be a serendipitous discovery for you as well.

There’s just one problem with this method. Human beings are herd animals. Like birds of a feather, we flock together. And so what you see on a site like Reddit or Digg – or what links you get from your friends on Facebook or Twitter – is what the flock is seeing. The flock might help you find something that’s unexpected and helpful, but it’s not likely to find you something from halfway around the world.

His solution to this problem is to find bridges – people that span multiple communities. These are people that can provide exposure to new ideas. John and I have talked about the importance of bridging in network terms – and Zuckerman provides clear examples of bridges, and the benefits of connecting to them.

He also talks about the importance of non-algorithmic filtering. I agree with him that we have lost sight of the value of this, and that we need to use different forms of filtering to create different forms of value. He talks about expert-based filtering as one specific method for finding bridges and increasing the diversity of ideas that you consider.

Exposing ourselves to a wider diversity of ideas is critical. It is especially important in our roles as citizens, but it is also crucial for improving innovation. We need to hear idea that don’t simply echo our own. The best way to make novel connections between ideas is to hear ideas that are radically different from those we’re used to thinking about.

We need to find bridges, or be a bridge, between diverse ideas. That’s one of the simplest ways to become more innovative.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

7 thoughts on “Get Out of the Echo Chamber to Improve Innovation

  1. Tim,

    I couldn’t agree more – I’ve often commented tweeted to people about us being in an echo chamber.

    The introduction of randomness is essential in getting new thoughts and the introduction of opposition is essential to check delusional group think.

    I think that it all boils down to communication.

    It’s not just quantity but the type of communication (I’m avoiding the word quality) I think we need wider communication and most of all more dialogue.

    On-line social nets are a wonderful opportunity to change the way we communicate – a technology-culture co-evolotion.

    Hopefully we will continue co-evolve with our tools.

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