Designing For “Knowledge Spillover”

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“Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.” -Charles Eames

The Renaissance in Italy.  The Grunge movement in Seattle.  The Enlightenment in France.  The Thrash movement in the San Francisco, Bay Area.  Movements have a tendency to focus in one area and then reverberate outward.  Or as Jonah Lehrer shares in his book, ‘Imagine’“Innovation was largely a local process.”  

It is in these localized areas we find what he refers to as “knowledge spillover.”  This “knowledge spillover” is especially apparent in our urban and city areas.  It is in these urban settings that we find ourselves constantly moving against and into others, sharing our thinking, our views and even our expertise.  It is these cityscapes that engage and intensify the probability of more connections, more relationships and more sharing of ideas.

As Lehrer shares, “What’s interesting is that the sheer disorder of the metropolis maximizes the amount of spillover.  Because cities force us to mingle with people of different ‘social distances’…we end up exposed to a much wider range of worldviews.”

It is this constant bumping and running into such a wide array of people and views that evokes this ongoing “knowledge spillover” in our urban and city settings.  Or as Lehrer purports, “It is the sheer density of the city – the proximity of all those overlapping minds – that makes it such an inexhaustible source of creativity.”

And while this research that he shares is mainly focused on how cities remain inexhaustible fountains of creativity and innovation.  We might well be served to overlay this thinking and concept upon our organizations and institutions.  Especially, when we see that the most creative and innovative organizations have found ways to create this “knowledge spillover” amongst their people.  They have torn down the silos that separate those within and look for a myriad of ways to cause their people to bump and run into each other on an ongoing basis.  (Think of how Steve Jobs built the Pixar building as an example.)

The more people come into contact with each other, at all levels of the organization, the more opportunity there is for this “knowledge spillover” to occur.  The more opportunity that their stories, their thinking, and their ideas can and will be shared and passed on.  The more opportunity there is to ignite the creative and innovative thinking of those within the whole of the organization.

In ‘Imagine’ Lehrer shares the work of researchers West and Bettencourt and how they refer to “this phenomenon as ‘superlinear scaling’ which is a fancy way of describing the increased output of people living in big cities.”

And while many of our organizations are as big as some cities, they seldom operate in this manner.  Most of their hierarchical structures and siloed departmentalization does more to inhibit, than increase the amount of “knowledge spillover” that can lead to any type of “superlinear scaling” within our organizations.

So as we consider the importance of building up more creative and innovative organizations, we need to determine if “knowledge spillover” is something worth considering as we move forward.  To determine…

If we are engaging the intentionality in our environments that brings out more creativity and innovative thinking and ideas?  If we need to rethink our organizational flows and spaces?  If our structures and processes inhibit or expand our opportunities for “knowledge spillover”?  If we are designing our way forward or creating obstacles that eventually narrow the path?

Questions we may need to begin to ask of ourselves and our organizations.

Quotes and references from…

Lehrer, Jonah.  Imagine: How Creativity Works.  2012.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.  New York.

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