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I’ve been thinking about the relationship between inspiration, innovation and collaboration lately, because of a number of related research articles I’ve been reading, in conjunction with things I’ve heard people say, and I thought it would be useful to articulate my thoughts in a blog post.

Inspiration and collaboration

At this debate during Internet Week Europe, the panelists and audience discussed why the current way agencies operate, in a sense, discourages collaboration. It is often about ‘but who’s the person who deserves the credit?’ rather than ‘that’s a great team of people working together.’ As was mentioned by someone on the panel, in the industry it’s not ‘first mover advantage’, it’s ‘first mover disadvantage’ because, essentially, people can copy your work and take credit for it after you’ve put it out there (as this agency did with Chris O’Shea’s Hand From Above project). It could have been a collaborative project but it wound up being a so-called ‘inspired’ project, which most people saw right through.

Innovation and inspiration

In ‘What Technology Wants’ , Kevin Kelly has a chapter devoted to the genesis of different technologies through the ages. He narrates how psychologist Dean Simonton took a Columbia University catalogue of simultaneous inventions before the year 1900 and aggregated it with similar lists to map out the pattern of parallel discovery, revealing a pattern of simultaneous discoveries, which tend to happen more and more frequently as time goes on.

He also writes about the analysis of disputes regarding patent filing by different inventors. One of these studies by Brandeis University academic Adam Jaffe showed that:

…in 45 percent of  cases both parties could prove they had a “working model” of the invention within six months of each other. Jaffe writes “These results provide some support for the idea that simultaneous or near-simultaneous invention is a regular feature of innovation."

Kelly goes on to conclude that “there is an air of inevitability about these simultaneous discoveries.”

I think this can be extended to creative ideas as well: once a certain idea takes root in the imagination of people, you will find a number of projects based on the rough same principle (i.e inspired by it): the old Modernista! site and the old Skittles site, for example. Or Improv Everywhere’s stunts and the T-Mobile flashmob ads.

Innovative ideas will inspire other creations.

Innovation and collaboration

In a similar vein, this research published on the Freakonomics blog by two law professors looking at computer programming contests and the results produced by two distinct group of innovators they profiled, the Pioneers and the Tweakers, is also worth reading. In it, Ned Gulley, the person in charge of the MathWorks programming contest, says that the Tweakers, as one would expect, take the hard work done by a Pioneer and then use it to arrive at a result which they then re-submit in their own name. They can do this because of an interesting twist to the contest rules which opens up the submitted code to everyone after an initial closed period. It does not, somehow, affect the number of submissions in the initial phase because the overall process maximizes collaboration over one-upmanship. In general though, Gulley admits that “there seems to be a cultural predisposition to find and glorify the (often mythical) breakthroughs of a lone genius”.

Inspiration, innovation and collaboration

The problem with traditional agencies is exactly that, in my mind: a cultural predisposition that whether we like it or not actually discourages innovation through collaboration. Why, if programming students were able to use the rule for the benefit of all, can agencies not try and do the same thing? Why is being precious about ideas the accepted norm?

People who want to be precious about their ideas obviously can and will. But the likelihood is that if they don’t see their idea through to fruition, sooner or later someone will - there’s evidence, as Kelly mentions, to prove that. In terms of investment, agencies are probably better placed to see an independent creative’s ideas through to production, but they don’t have to rip their ideas off to do it – it is possible through collaboration in a smooth and honest manner. Follow-up ideas may claim to be ‘inspired by’ someone else’s original idea, but unless the execution is near-flawless, they are more than likely to fall flat.

What will change the way we work is a change in attitude towards believing that inspiration can come from people outside of you or your agency and therefore collaboration is good, as long as it is innovative and transparent, because that is what will stay in people’s minds.

Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr, courtesy a Creative Commons license

Anjali Ramachandran

Anjali Ramachandran

Anjali couldn't shake off the habit of calling herself a 'citizen of the world' for the last decade, having lived in 5 countries so far, but has now amended that to 'citizen of the internetz'. She is a strong believer in technology as an agent of social change and likes exploring the relationship between digital services and physical objects. Robots and transmedia storytelling projects intrigue her.