A Vision for a Global, Decentralized Innovation Collective

The Rio Grande River illustrates the power of Liquid Networks as it cuts its way through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. (photo by the author © 2011 Creative Commons License)

The Rio Grande River illustrates the power of Liquid Networks as it cuts its way through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. (photo by the author © 2011 Creative Commons License)

The FOEcast community has a unique opportunity to create a next generation organization that will reinvent what it means to collaborate, learn, and form communities. Like many products of the industrial age the professional organization is ripe for disruption and what better group to do that than a collection of some of the most forward-thinking futurists that not only lean forward on matters of technology but recognize that education writ large is a bet on all of our futures. It has become clear over the past few months, as we have mourned the end of the New Media Consortium, that no organization rooted in industrial-era practices meets the needs of this particular community. Instead, we have a unique opportunity (and responsibility), in the words of Janet Murray, to invent a new medium.

Over the last half-decade three ideas influenced my work probably more than any others. First of all, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From describes how we invent innovation networks. The second was the concept of the lean startup developed by Eric Ries, which posits that technology now allows us to explore new ideas and experiment with their efficacy cheaply and easily. Finally, Gardner Campbell‘s New Media Seminar introduced me to the work of Douglas Engelbart who advocated in the early 1960s for a system of technology that would prioritize augmenting human intellect.

I can envision a FOEcast network that incorporates all three of these concepts. This network would establish a liquid network as described by Johnson, the creation of lean startup organizations to empower a diversity of thought throughout the world, and an overall project framework of augmenting human intellect through the strategic implementation of technology. This would be a dynamic, thoroughly modern, and ultimately resilient network that can grow organically and provide immense benefit to a worldwide network of communities. Let me briefly explain each of these concepts and how I see them being applied to the creation of a FOEcast innovation network.

Steven Johnson has been exploring the environments where innovation emerges in various forms for a decade now. He pulls from a wide a range of historical and social science literatures to explain how “long hunches” are developed and incubated. As he says in his 2010 book, “A good idea is a network” (p. 45) but the question that immediately follows is why some kinds of networks are prolific at generating good, actionable ideas and why other kinds of networks consistently fail in this regard. He uses a metaphor from physics to show us three different kinds of network states: gaseous (aerial), solid, and liquid.

Think of the behavior of molecules in each of these three conditions. In a gas, chaos rules, new configurations are possible, but they are constantly being disrupted by the volatile nature of the environment. In a solid, the opposite happens: the patterns have stability, but they are incapable of change. But a liquid creates a more promising environment for the system to explore the adjacent possible. (p. 52)

Right now the FOEcast network is trending toward the gaseous. This is not a bad thing in its conceptual stage and this Ideation Week is all about capturing as many good ideas as possible for the development of the network. At a Meta level, however, we now have the responsibility to shape these ideas into a workable form, while still leaving room for iteration and growth as we “use” this new tool we are creating. The trick will be creating just enough scaffolding and sets of basic principles that will channel and filter the best ideas without stifling those ideas that might not initially appear to be promising. The “long hunch” concept also explained by Johnson, implies that ideas take time to germinate in order to be truly profound. This germination is a product of a good liquid network that sustains and iterates hunches into innovation. This is a central challenge facing the FOEcast network as we explore new ways of integration, communication, and the surfacing of the best ideas from around the globe.

Starting up a cumbersome organizational structure is difficult to achieve but in order to achieve the level of global diversity currently lacking in the educational technology discussion, the development of local or regional groups is essential. I envision a federated, bottom-up structure supporting a liquid global FOEcast network.

Eric Ries provides us with a possible strategy for standing up local efforts in support of the larger mission. His Lean Startup model, which he developed in looking at successful and unsuccessful startups in Silicon Valley, is explicitly designed to stand up efforts with minimal investments in resources (time or money). He sees technology as being a key equalizer here. In our case, creating a print journal or even an expensive conference infrastructure to underpin FOEcast is no longer necessary. While there is still utility in “publishing” (whatever that means) our ideas and to gather to share ideas, in person wherever possible, these are not preconditions for the success of the effort. Instead, we can allow them to a natural outgrowth of our virtual activities when funds and/or geographic proximity allow. We have at our disposal a whole range of new technological tools so we can also meet virtually with relative ease using tools like Zoom, Google, or Slack. We just have to structure all of these efforts with the idea of a liquid network in mind.

These kinds of technologies will allow embryonic local groups to initially adopt the Meetup.com model and then organize more formally as needs and resources allow. These gatherings could be physical or virtual and could adopt a variety of synchronous or asynchronous communications methods. The efforts of these local “pods” could then be aggregated through various means into the global umbrella organization.

If Johnson provides us with the network and Ries provides us with a method to stand up the nodes of the network, Engelbart can provide us with the guiding principles that unite that community. It is essential in creating a liquid network to have mechanisms and principles that structure and channel the efforts of the group without stifling outliers. Structures could involve regular global online meetups and a period or ongoing futuring processes that result in concrete products that are useful to the local groups and, by extension, to the communities that they support.

The simple concept that Engelbart enunciated in 1962 was that technology was there to augment our capabilities. Those technologies that do not meet that basic criterion should be bypassed or improved upon. Most importantly, technological or organizational barriers should not impede our interactions with our new digital tools. It is only by fostering this basic principle that humanity can truly reap the fruits of the immense possibilities opening to us in a digital world. I would humbly like to propose that this basic Engelbartian premise should form the cornerstone of our collective effort.

Innovation is our business. At its core, the FOEcast group needs to allow us to learn how to innovate from each other and to facilitate innovating together. That is perhaps the most important lesson that we can share. It is much more important than the latest classroom technology or any one innovation coming out of Google, Apple, or MIT. Our larger mission is centered on how we create a mechanism for successfully bridging the digital gap in education and beyond. Technology can get us there but more importantly; it can help us create a lean, liquid network that will model what we preach. I am excited about the possibilities.

Team FOEcast6 Comments