One of the more interesting and provocative books on innovation is Frans Johannson’s book The Medici Effect. In this book, Johannson describes two types of innovation: directional innovation and intersectional innovation.
Directional innovation is that which develops within a field and which is a progression or evolution of the practices and combination of ideas in that field. Directional innovation improves a field.
Intersectional innovation is that which is created when ideas combine at the intersection of fields. At that crossroads, Johannson contends, is the most powerful potential for innovation. He points to the many intersectional discoveries of the Rennaisance (thus the title of his book) brought about by such overlapping disciplines as art and science, mathematics and music and so on. At the intersection ideas combine exponentially to create thousands of possibilities unknown in any one field. It is this quantity that leads to a new kind of quality. Intersectional innovation transforms a field and allows for unexpected leaps along new paths.
In thinking about these two types of innovation it occurs to me that libraries at this point in time must seek the intersectional in order to utilize the explosive power of today’s technologies and changes in human communication patterns. Innovations often are tied to the creation of new knowledge, the offering and teaching of knowledge, and the broadening of privliege. Libraries have historically held society’s most powerful role when it comes to knowledge and the broadening of privilege and human rights. What other fields might we meet up with to maximize our innovative potential? What do we need to do to put ourselves in the way of that possible meet up?
We need to engage our associative powers and abilities. It is quite possible that our associative abilities are the main thing that separates us from other animals on this planet. We can make associative leaps of thought that allow us to create new thoughts and to come up with ideas. So we need to lower the barriers to associative thought.
Johannson suggests that, to lower associative barriers, we need to do three things:
- learn differently — he says, “Expertise, for all its strengths, can make it more difficult to break out of established patterns of thought.” He suggests self-education is a powerful way to learn differently — following threads outside of our normal pathways
- reverse assumptions — actively look for the opposite of your assumption and challenge yourself to consider a different point of view
- try on new perspectives — as Leonardo daVinci noted one needs to view something from at least three different perspectives to fully understand it
We need to purposefully make efforts to uncover unusual concept combinations and find unexpected partners in order to find new intersections. Intersectional innovation will help us transform our profession as it has so many other professions in the past.
However, Johannson notes that “The major difference between a directional innovation and an intersectional one is that we know where we are going with the former. Unfortunately, the intersection is a place where our understanding of what to do and how to do it is opaque, at best. An intersectional idea can go any number of directions.” So, it would appear that if we truly want to transform our profession and our libraries we must be willing to not know where we are going and how we are going to get there. Discomfort indeed!