Innovation in Unexpected Places

This week’s DC Tech Meetup was held at the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, and I was surprised to see these plastic cards tucked into all the pews. Apparently, parishioners can make donations by direct deposit and place this card in the collection plate on Sundays–in other words, a centuries-old institution known for its respect for tradition is embracing new technology.

I wonder what effect this will have on donations: Will they rise because donations are easier and no longer dependent on what’s in your pocket? Or will they fall because “accountability”–having your fellow churchgoers see just how much money you put in the plate–is lost?

According to the GivingUSA Foundation, in 2009: “Giving to religion, at 33 percent of total giving, remains the largest share of all contributions, with an estimated $100.95 billion. The estimated decline in giving to religion was 0.7 percent in 2009 (an estimated decrease of 0.3 percent adjusted for inflation).”

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Why Zoning Laws are Anti-Innovation

With governments abuzz about promoting innovation, one easy solution would be to simplify zoning laws.  In talking with a friend yesterday, I realized that zoning laws discourage innovation in at least three distinct ways:

  1. Zoning laws require you to assign your business to one of the categories that government regulators have devised. (My friend, for example, had to call his dance school a “dance hall,” although they never held receptions there.) This gives business owners an incentive to stick with traditional types of businesses, lest they face unnecessary delay or failure in obtaining a license.
  2. Zoning laws make it difficult to change categories.  If your business is failing and you want to try something new, you are discouraged from doing so by all the necessary paperwork, fees, and time. Plus, depending on your location, the new license may not even be available.
  3. Obtaining multiple licenses makes the process even harder. And again, it may be difficult to find a property where all the licenses are available.

So while I appreciate that there isn’t a hip hop club blasting music at 3 a.m. near my apartment, I’d be happy to see looser zoning regulations that don’t create headaches for our business owners and innovators.

The Adjacent Possible

“All of us live in our own private versions of the adjacent possible.  In our work lives, in our creative pursuits, in the organizations that employ us, in the communities we inhabit—in all these different environments, we are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of our standard routines.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 40.

The “adjacent possible” is the set of all future states that are one step away; it’s why the Internet couldn’t have been invented in medieval times, but so many programs are written daily now. Johnson uses the metaphor of walking through a door into another room, which then has three more doors that lead to rooms you couldn’t have reached directly from your starting point.

This has interesting personal applications, beyond what it means for innovation and progress.  On one hand, the new and different is only a step away, waiting for us to make a new connection or open a new door.  On the other hand, we can only move so quickly and expect so much; change is often gradual because it involves many incremental steps.

Innovation vs. Invention

This article distinguishes between invention – turning money into ideas – and innovation – turning ideas into money.  (I’m not sure I would use the terms that way, but there’s an important distinction between idea-generation and commercialization.)  Lately I’ve seen a few instances were individuals come up with ideas that they themselves don’t want to commercialize, the latest being my unbelievably healthy ice cream recipe.  I wonder if there’s some way to connect random people who come up with ideas with the folks who actually want to work on them?

Innovation Quote of the Day

“A good idea is a network.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 45.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one.  It has something to do with the fact that an idea – for a new product, process, subject to write about, etc. – is often a combination of various smaller components.  Microsoft Word combines elements of print writing with conventions of the computer screen.  This also helps explain why Darwin was able to write down all the essential components of his theory of evolution before, one night, realizing that he had a theory; the nodes of the network were there, but he had not yet zoomed out to see the full picture and all its implications.  Ideas-as-networks may also help explain why different perspectives are valuable; we may be focusing on a different aspect of an idea than our neighbor.

Innovation Quote of the Day

“Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 17

So we can use our minds to alter our environment, and our environment also shapes how we think.  The inhabitants of a frigid tundra will not dream up polka-dotted umbrellas.  This is true.  The question then arises of where we place the emphasis – on the power of individuals to shape their world, or all the circumstances that individuals require to come up with particular innovations – on individual agency or external forces.