What does a huge snail have to do with innovation? It’s all about the platform.
The jungle – much like a coral reef – is an incredible platform for innovation. It creates an environment with billions of niches where flora and fauna can grow and evolve. There’s no particular plan, just a grand variety of nutrients. Ultimately, we get a cornucopia of life that we never could have predicted, even including a snail as big as your hand. (That’s Elliot’s hand in the photo, by the way, in the jungle of eastern Peru).
What’s the lesson here? We need to create more jungle-like platforms if we want to spur innovation. Platforms don’t have to be hot and steamy but they have to be rich in “mental nutrients” – food for thought. One of my favorite platforms, for instance, is the land-grant college system in the United States. It started small but grew into a “jungle” engendering a welter of useful (and sometimes bizarre) ideas and innovations.
On the other hand, if we tried to create a huge snail, we would inevitably fail. The trick is to create the platform that allows the snail to evolve naturally. Let’s focus on building jungles, not snails.
I’ve spent the past several days in the Minnesota woods at a client’s executive retreat. The client is a software company that has made a number of acquisitions over the past few years. A good portion of the discussion at the retreat focused on how to build a platform that can: 1) integrate the various acquisitions; 2) deliver a common interface; 3) simplify the support load; 4) provide a foundation for developing new functionality more quickly.
The discussion got me thinking about platforms — innovations that generate innovations. I’ve written a lot about innovation over the past year and especially the role of serendipity and mashup thinking. I’ve generally focused, however, on innovations as an end result. In other words, we adopt certain behaviors and modes of thinking and the result is an innovation. We then repeat the process and (hopefully) get another innovation. Creating the innovation essentially ends the process.
Platform thinking, on the other hand, can lead us to innovations that spawn innovations. As Steven Johnson points out, platforms abound in the natural world. Johnson builds an extended metaphor around the coral reef — a platform for unimaginably rich plant and animal life. Once the process gets started (in an otherwise barren sea), the reef builds a virtuous circle that attracts and facilitates multiple life forms. Part of the secret is collaboration. The CO2 that one animal gives off as waste becomes the building block for another animal’s home. Similarly, oxygen is a waste product for some reef denizens but the lifeblood of others.
In the human world, the Internet is probably the best recent example of a platform. The Internet creates both serendipity (we get to meet lots of people) and mashup thinking (we can easily find lots of new ideas to mash together). The Internet also takes care of a lot of the dirty work of information sharing. Just as the coral reef makes it easy for many animals to find a home, the Internet makes it easy for people like me to create websites and share information. We often hear the metaphor of researchers standing on the shoulders of giants. My website is standing on the shoulders of a very rich (and essentially free) technology stack.
Platform thinking is innovation taken to the next step. We think about how to create something that creates something. I’m generally a proponent of free markets, but Johnson makes as strong argument that the most fundamental platforms come from public agencies. Certainly, the Internet did not come from market-driven competition. Rather, it resulted from the collaboration of many specialists from many disciplines in an open environment. That’s pretty much like a coral reef.
So, what’s the next platform? I’m guessing that it’s a mashup of: 1) the human body, 2) secure communications, and 3) Internet sensors. We already have millions of Internet sensors monitoring the environment — everything from air pressure, to ocean salinity, to volcanic pressures. The next frontier could well be sensing human health conditions. We already have wearable condition monitors. For instance, friends of mine run a small company in Denver called Alcohol Monitoring. They provide a wearable device, with secure communications, that alerts probation officers when one of their wards has been drinking. Within a decade, I’d guess that health condition monitors will migrate from outside the body to inside the body. They’ll provide critical data that can help us foresee — and forestall — health crises. They’ll also provide a platform for a huge wave of new ideas, services, and fortunes. Sounds like a coral reef.