our echo-chambers can kill us

Cultural Echo-chambers

Innovation is about making connections — connecting people and connecting ideas. The broader and deeper the connections, the more potential for serendipity. This is why systemic factors like gender or racial bias put organizations and societies at a disadvantage. They lose diversity and they become less innovative. History has shown us this, such as the chase for the atomic bomb during the Second World War. The Germans refused to engage Jewish scientists, some of whom then worked for the eventually successful US Manhattan Project.  Looking further back in time, when Tasmania was cut off from the rest of the Australian continent 10,000 years ago, Tasmanian society began to lose much of its collective knowledge.

“If your number of minds working on the problem gets small enough, you can actually begin to lose information. There’s a steady state level of information that depends on the size of your population and the interconnectedness. It also depends on the innovativeness of your individuals, but that has a relatively small effect compared to the effect of being well interconnected and having a large population.” –How Culture Drove Human Evolution

As Esko Kilpi states, “Unlike mechanical systems, human systems thrive on variety and diversity.”

Our echo-chambers can kill us.

Creativity & Learning

The Age of Discovery likens the current era to the Renaissance. The Renaissance brought wonderful new discoveries (universities, astronomy, print) as well as new challenges (the pox, war, mass slavery). Our age is bringing similar discoveries (nano materials, gene therapy, artificial intelligence) and new threats (Ebola, extremism, climate change). We are in desperate need of diverse thinking.

Seek difference. The point is not simply to visit different places and read different things; it’s to accumulate new perspectives. We may think we do this already, but most often we don’t, not really. We visit new spaces, but do we learn to see them through local eyes? If every business trip follows the same script — airport-taxi-hotel-office-artisinal café-taxi-airport — then the answer is no.

We need to seek out the different. Curiosity is the key to progress as individuals and as a society in times of extreme complexity.

The authors of Creative Economy Entrepreneurs  state that, “When you’re looking at opportunities within the creative environment, you’re always betting on the people.” Innovation comes from people, not technology. Their 25 years of experience reinforces the value of human connections to foster creativity.

“With so much information available and so many methods of analysis, access to knowledge is no longer the challenge. Everything is connected, and these connections happen instantly. The challenge for the Fourth Industrial Revolution becomes interpretation, reflection, and innovation. How do we create new value out of our hyperconnected knowledge?”

Machines do not reflect — people do.  The Fourth Industrial Revolution — physical, digital, and biological — like the previous three, requires a change in how we think of learning and how we support it. It’s not Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, nor is it STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, & Medicine).

“With every industrial revolution, there has been a corresponding learning revolution that, at the time, looked prohibitively expensive. However, the cost of maintaining the status quo in the past was the cost of missed opportunity which, in many cases, was a fortune.” —Jesse Martin

Radical innovation comes from networks with large structural holes which are more diverse. This is why our social networks cannot also be work teams, or they too can become echo-chambers. Work teams can focus intensely on incremental innovation, to get better at what they already do. Communities of practice, with both strong and weak social ties, then become a bridge on this network continuum, enabling both individual and interactive creativity. To ensure diversity of thinking, all professionals have to be engaged in learning outside their organizations and cultural comfort zones in order bring in diverse ideas and knowledge which will fuel creativity.

Innovation does not happen inside a petri dish. We have to be connected to loose social networks that provide us with a view of the frontiers of our knowledge. We then need to actively engage in communities of practice to develop shared understanding among our peers. Then we can truly contribute as members of teams working on complex problems. None of this costs additional money, only time and attention.

To see the frontiers of our knowledge, we need time to interact, converse, reflect, and experiment. Doing so in a conscious way can help us master the fourth industrial revolution. We are each responsible for our learning. As the authors of The Age of Discovery say, “Don’t just get an education. Make one”.


Network era fluency could be described as individuals and communities understanding and being part of global networks that influence various aspects of our lives. For individuals, the core skill is critical thinking, or questioning all assumptions, including one’s own. People can learn though their various communities and develop social literacy. Information literacy is improved by connecting to a diversity of networks. But control of networks by any single source destroys diversity. The dark sides of consumer social media are now showing themselves and to counter these we need better literacies. Monocultural platforms owned by platform monopolists may kill innovation and even our collective ability to adapt.

Mass network era fluency can ensure that networks remain open, transparent, and diverse — therefore reflecting many communities. This kind of fluency, by the majority of people, can help us deal with the many complex issues facing humanity. We cannot deal with complex issues and networked forces unless we can knowledgeably talk about them.

Making sense of complex problems requires outside help. We cannot innovate alone. Relying on internal subject matter experts is no longer enough. Organizations need to cultivate external subject matter networks. In order to develop a subject matter network, we have to first be seen as valuable nodes in others’ networks. This takes time and effort and is a core part of the sensemaking discipline of personal knowledge mastery. Today, professionals are only as good as their networks.

“Complex environments represent a continuous challenge for sensemaking in organizations. Continuous ambiguity exerts continuous pressures on organizations to modify their patterns of interaction, information flow and decision making. Organizations struggle to address situations that are precarious, explanations that are equivocal and paradoxical, and cognitive dilemmas of all kinds. This creates a demand for innovative approaches in sensemaking. Since agility is what is required in navigating complexity, we can call these new approaches ‘agile sensemaking.’” —Bonnita Roy

Note: This post is a compilation of several written here about innovation over the course of 2018.

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