engineering our own serendipity

An article in Time magazine on engineering serendipity discusses ways to create better physical environments as well as the push for software that will improve innovation by increasing the potential for serendipitous encounters. The author, Greg Lindsay, concludes that social networks are the key.

“Serendipity is the process through which we discover unknown unknowns. Understanding it as an emergent property of social networks, instead of sheer luck, enables us to treat it as a viable strategy for organizing people and sharing ideas, rather than writing it off as magic. And that, in turn, has potentially huge ramifications for everything from how we work to how we learn to where we live by leading to a shift away from efficiency — doing the same thing over and over, only a little bit better — toward novelty and discovery.” —Greg Lindsay, The Aspen Institute

While Silicon Valley CEO’s keep trying to engineer serendipity in their organizations, I would focus on the individual. Chance favours the connected mind, said Steven B. Johnson, and with social media, any mind can be connected today. No special tools or software are required, only the meta-cognition inherent in all people. Stepping outside our routines and looking at how we get information, and from whom, should be a regular reflective activity. Examining your social networks for diversity (age, gender, location, language, religion, political views, etc.) can indicate if you are living in a media echo chamber.

peopleWhile not required, organizational network analysis tools can help, such as Synapp or mapping tools like However, focusing on the technology is the wrong priority. Simple exercises, like asking yourself — why am I following this person on Twitter? — can be more helpful. Getting out and doing different activities is often missed in today’s over-scheduled work and home life. For example, I often take public transport when traveling. You will get a much better feel for a place and its people when you do than you would in a chauffeured limousine. I saw a very different part of Las Vegas, while at a conference, by cycling and taking public buses across the city.

We can all discover unknown unknowns, by being mindful of our connections and our actions that can bring about new connections. This is a key component of the discipline of personal knowledge mastery. It is a practice of ‘accidental intentions’.

“Putting myself into places (online and physical places) where serendipitous discoveries can happen is not efficient, and of course, cannot be planned. Serendipity helped me discover people, concepts, and ideas that I would have never known before. Relationships–online, physical, mixed, new and old–and time and space are not easily planned. Serendipity does not map to set goals or plans. Instead serendipity has surprised me with energy, thoughts, knowledge, ideas, concepts, realizations, experiences, and relationships.” —Anne Adrian

4 Responses to “engineering our own serendipity”

  1. Emma MacKenzie

    Thanks, Harold. I was just reflecting yesterday on how fortunate I am that my Facebook feed includes people (family, friends, colleagues) from all the continents, that my feed includes posts not just in English, but Italian, Russian, Tagalog, Burmese, Akan, and Tajik. The diversity keeps me alert and learning all the time.

  2. Nick Leffler

    Excellent inspiration for how important it is to get out there and experience alternate ways of thinking. Networking on social media can be a problem when discussing serendipity though depending on the network you use. Facebook for example is great at killing serendipity because it filters your information based on what you’ve previously like. So, Facebook is constantly refining your feed to close you into a bubble more and more.

    Precisely the reason I love Twitter so much. There’s no filter except for my choices, and I choose to follow anybody who I deem a real person that provides real Tweets. I think Google+ is also a great example of a network that provides serendipity but I’m not sure if it does any filtering (doesn’t appear so to me!).

    Anyway, I’m a huge fan of serendipity and I think the title explains it all, only you can engineer your own by venturing out of your norm and not allowing others to engineer lack of serendipity for you 🙂


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)