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The Hummingbird Effect

Hummingbird reduced

Image: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Moving through the literature on how innovation occurs both in human society and nature,  it wasn’t long before I encountered another creature of surprise: the hummingbird!  If you’ve read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), you’ll have a good idea of how he got to now in his latest book, How We Got to Now (2014) where he introduces the “hummingbird effect.” In the earlier work, he focused on identifying the most fertile conditions for innovative thinking. In his view, traversing across disciplines the way he does in his work does not just give us new metaphors: “It gives us new facts.”

It is best to look at the previous book in order to place the newer book in a helpful context for purposes of this blog.  In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson identified a “series of shared properties and patterns” that recur in unusually innovative environments. His ambitious aim in this earlier book was to present the common attributes of innovative systems, whether they involve natural systems, like coral reefs,or the sociology of urban life, or the intellectual evolution of a particular scientist.

In Johnson’s view–the “long zoom” view–unusually innovative (or “generative”) environments “display similar patterns of creativity at multiple scales simultaneously.”  He proposes that by moving across these scales we can gain insights we would not if we stay within the boundaries of a single domain. Johnson emphasizes that, whatever our goals, “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” Science “long ago realized,” according to Johnson, “that we can understand something better by studying its behavior in different contexts.” The different contexts he explored included ones he called: “the adjacent possible,” “liquid networks,” the “slow hunch,” “error,” and “serendipity,” among others. This earlier book is an excellent conceptual reference, in my view, for those keen to generate more hospitable conditions for creativity and innovation wherever they work. (Perhaps a future blog post will delve into it more.)

The newer book, How We Got to Now, investigates what Johnson calls the “strange chains of influence” that make up the “hummingbird effect.” The hummingbird effect refers to the phenomenon of innovations in one field triggering innovations in another domain altogether. He notes hummingbirds themselves evolved in such a way that they can hover alongside a flower, something few other birds could manage, according to Johnson. These unusual flight mechanics emerged from “coevolutionary interactions” between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar that could only be tapped by birds with a capacity to hover–or, the hummingbird.

(Johnson distinguishes the “hummingbird effect” from the better-known “butterfly effect,” the latter of which also will be addressed in our zoological taxonomy of surprise in coming blog posts.)

In subsequent chapters, Johnson considers how the hummingbird effect influenced externalities and unintended effects in other fields after an innovation in one field took root. Sometimes breakthroughs open up new possibilities that are recognized only much later. Sometimes innovations lead to tools that influence us “metaphorically,” he writes, citing the connection between the clock and the “mechanistic view of early physics.” A main point is that, when we set out to do something, there can be many unintended, even invisible, ripple effects.

Murano5light

Image: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

It can take generations, centuries, and even millenia to see those ripple effects, as underscored by Johnson’s long zoom look at the “history of glass” early in the book.He traces the evolution of the discovery of layers of what we’ve come to know as glass on a vast stretch of the Libyan desert to the use of glass as an ornamentation, for windows, for magnifiers and reading glasses, beautiful transparent Murano glass vases, highly sensitive microscopes and telescopes and even fiber-optic cables. Less tangible but no less significant were the transformative possibilities brought forth by the advent of the mirror, changing the way artists managed perspectives in their paintings and how people everywhere literally saw themselves.

In our more interconnected world today, most important innovations “arrive in clusters of simultaneous discovery,” he writes. All around the world people will work on the same problem and approach it with the “same fundamental assumptions.”

As for individuals who appear to make conceptual leaps that propel them far beyond present-day boundaries, Johnson suggests that some of their genius stems from the fact that they “worked at the margins of their official fields, or at the intersection point between very different disciplines”–disciplines as varied as stenography, printing and anatomical studies of the human ear (influencing the development of a predecessor to the phonograph).

Johnson maintains that explorations of such interconnecting influences, even if prone to be speculative in hindsight, can be helpful for dealing with modern challenges:

“Learning from patterns of innovation that shaped society in the past can only help us navigate the future more successfully, even if our explanations of that past are not falsifiable in quite the way that a scientific theory is.”

Great stuff indeed! And we will come back to it in future posts, I’m sure.

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