The recent DARPA Network [Red Balloon] Challenge (prior post here) was a national illustration of the power of mobile communication for innovation. In approximately 8 hours and 52 minutes, the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team was able to correctly identify the location of 10 special weather balloons located across the US. Lance Whitney writes "Team MIT's strategy was to build a Web site designed to attract more and more followers--people who might know the balloons' locations themselves and those could bring aboard others who knew the coordinates, essentially creating a chain effect." Lance spoke with Riley Crane, the MIT group's leader. Riley highlighted the power of the human network:
I think it's important to point out that there's a tremendous scientific opportunity in all of this, and from our side, we were never in it for the 10 balloons. Of course, that was the challenge, and that was exciting. But from a broader scientific perspective, we were in it to understand how to mobilize the vast resources of the human network, to face challenges and explore opportunities in living in such a connected society.
Breadth and availability from mobile connectedness can power a human innovation network. It doesn't have to be about invention -- the MIT team built a pretty basic website; they used social networking, starting with email; they used an interesting though not new "reverse pyramid" incentive system. None of the pieces were inventions (at least one team did invent - but they didn't win). Instead, the MIT team practiced T-O-P Management by weaving together existing technology, organization, and people dimensions into a powerful approach. We can all look for innovation opportunities based on existing mobile connectedness and the power of the human network. We don't have to be inventors, but rather can focus on weaving together existing components for new value. Two of my favorite books on innovation give ideas on how to do this weaving and why it works: Democratizing Innovation (Eric von Hippel) and How Breakthroughs Happen (Andrew Hargadon). Both von Hippel and Hargadon describe innovation as often not being about inventing something completely new, but rather putting together existing components in new ways (e.g., the Sony Walkman). They both also speak to the social aspects of innovation. From Hargadon (p. 57):
Within stories of [even] accidental innovation, however, we find two key mechanisms at work: moments when people, ideas, and objects from different worlds come in contact, and minds prepared to exploit these moments.
From von Hippel (p. 10):
Innovation by users tends to be widely distributed rather than concentrated among just a very few very innovative users. As a result, it is important for user-innovators to find ways to combine and leverage their efforts.
Mobile communication provides mechanisms for this combination and leverage. But how do we manage the complexity that this mobile system of multiple idea threads, multiple communities, multiple technologies and platforms creates? Later this week I'll go back to the ideas I mentioned from Ron Ashkenas' A New Role for the CIO: Reducing Complexity. Dr. Lynne Cooper, Knowledge Strategist at JPL, commented regarding that post "So… the fundamental question is whose complexity is the CIO trying to reduce?" "I’d much rather have a toolbox full of great individual tools optimized for the jobs I have to perform rather than a Swiss Army Knife with 47 attachments that sorta do the job." For mobile innovation to work, can it be simple? Does complexity contribute benefits (as well as acknowledged costs) both through broader networks and better tools -- but also from serendipitous discoveries from the complex overlap of networks, tools, and other triggers? If we do need this complexity, how do we manage it? Please comment here to add your ideas to the mix.