Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Liquid Networks

One of my favourite events at ISTE 2013 was the keynote by Steven Johnson entitled Connected Learning, Connected World.   Basically this was a discussion of where good ideas come from, and the type of environments that lead to creative thinking.   

Good ideas don't come as eureka moments very often. Historically the breakthrough ideas are mostly preceded by a long period of incubation and mulling over a problem that is intriguing - this is what Steven called "the slow hunch".   He talked about the institutions that give time for these ideas to develop - and these are the very organizations that are known for innovation.  A good example he shared with us was the development of the world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee following his employment by CERN in 1982.  The www was started as a hobby to keep track of the people and projects there, but it took until the late 1980s for the initial hunch to be remixed with other platforms and to build on the developing internet.  There was something in the research environment at CERN that allowed the idea to mature and be kept alive until the world was ready for it.   The moral of this is to keep ideas alive and wait for the time to be ready. 

But what is it that keeps ideas alive?  This is something that Steven Johnson described as "liquid networks" which refers to the fluidity of thought somewhere between the nebulous idea and the solid fact.  In liquid networks hunches can connect and reconnect with hunches in other minds.  Perhaps the first liquid network was found in the coffee houses of London, Paris and Vienna during the Enlightenment where many institutions and ideas had their birth.  Coffee houses were revolutionary ideas in themselves.  Before this people drank alcohol, which was a healthy choice when compared with drinking water in those days, but alcohol is a depressant and coffee is a stimulant and when people started to meet together and drink coffee ideas started to flow.  Drinking in a coffee house also enabled connections with people who were different, and this led to innovation.  Over and over again history shows us that diversity promotes innovation:  when we surround ourselves with people who think differently, we can become more creative ourselves.  Research into the social networks of creative people shows a very distinct pattern - loose, weak ties with a diverse range of professionals leads to more creative thinking, as moving outside your comfort zone expands possibilities so you can take the building blocks of ideas and remix them in different ways.  For example, looking at things in a different way led to Gutenberg using the idea of the screw wine press and turning it into the printing press, or Apple sending employees to train at the Ritz Carlton and discovering that people loved the concierge service and then transforming this idea into the Genius Bar in their stores.

So how does this apply to education?  Well first of all I think all of us in the keynote were able to see that Twitter can be like a liquid network - but many of us simply connect with other educators, so maybe we are lacking the diversity of expertise that we need to be really innovative and creative.  As people move beyond school they get increasingly specialized -  but in schools there are people with expertise in many different disciplines.  How can we reach out to others and build conceptual bridges to connect across disciplines and help us solve complicated problems?  We definitely have the opportunities - we have the tools, the networks and the technologies to help us make the links.  We can connect with people around the world and learn from them.  If there is nobody in your own school who can move your thinking forward, then you can connect with others who can and who are only too willing to help and share ideas.  Twitter is the virtual coffee house of the 21st century.

Photo Credit: roberthuffstutter via Compfight cc

1 comment:

  1. I think there is no doubt that for many of us Twitter has changed how we connect and the ideas we share. Blend coffee and twitter together and you have the perfect network.