Creativity Needs Contact

Ideas flow between people, joining together, in unpredictable combinations–this is the source of surprising new ideas. A new study shows that physical, in-person encounters make it more likely for new creative combinations to result in a patentable invention, a striking example of group genius.

Breakthrough innovations emerge, unpredictably, from a wandering and improvisational process. The most dangerous creativity myth is that creativity starts with a brilliant idea, and that successful innovation is an execution of that brilliant idea. It’s just the opposite: Creative ideas emerge from action, from doing things.

The best way to foster creativity is to bring together two very different concepts, what researchers call a remote association. If you combine two similar things, you often get a useful invention, but it’s not that surprising. For example, the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups combine chocolate and peanut butter to make a tasty snack. But both chocolate and peanut butter were each already tasty (and unhealthy) snacks. The combination isn’t so surprising.

Now, imagine combining a potato chip and a magazine. Huh? If that’s your first reaction, then bingo, you’ve hit on a remote association. It might not be possible to invent anything useful or desirable, but go ahead and force yourself to think of possibilities. An edible magazine? A newspaper that’s sold along with chips, for you to eat while you read? Keep going… this is the path to surprising creativity. (See below for the actual invention.)

The power of collaboration is that it brings together different people who each have different conceptual material in their minds. Everything that’s in your head is related, of course, just by belonging to your own thought. You can create remote associations on your own, but it’s even more likely if everything in your mind is bumped up against everything in someone else’s mind. That’s what I call group genius and it’s the story behind every significant innovation. Of course, you should be intentional about this, and seek out conversations and interactions. But some of the most famous innovations happen when you’re not even trying. These are the everyday small encounters–waiting in line to buy coffee or chatting with another parent when picking up your kids, or talking with another musician while you’re packing up after a rehearsal.

A new study calls these “knowledge spillovers” and finds that chance encounters drive creativity. The researchers used an exciting new methodology: They tracked the locations of 425,000 phones using commercially available cell phone data. First, they guessed where each person worked by looking at where the phones were during the workday. Then, they tracked all of the events where the phone owners left the office and ended up next to someone from another company. They found 218 million of these episodes, between September 2016 and November 2017. They only counted episodes where the people were together for at least 30 minutes. (They developed an algorithm to detect if the encounter had been planned in advance, and they only analyzed the episodes that seem not to have been planned.)

Then the researchers analyzed all of the patent applications filed by these two companies, to determine whether one of the patents cited the other one. This is a rough measure of creativity and also of creative influence, of knowledge transfer, or “knowledge spillover” as the researchers call it. The methodology is complicated, but the findings are clear: Chance encounters increase the likelihood of knowledge transfer, and in a very real impactful way–patentable invention.

The genius of the group isn’t only in sitting around a table and talking face to face. The group, writ large, is an entire city, a regional ecosystem. It’s collaboration on a wide scale. It’s mostly invisible. You only read about it after the fact, in the first-person accounts or the biographies. But now, with this innovative new methodology, we have a quantifiable confirmation of these many stories of unplanned, emergent innovation.

Combine a potato chip and a newspaper and you might get: The Pringle’s Prints, a potato chip printed with text in an edible vegetable-based ink.

*David Atkin, Keith Chen, and Anton Popov. (2023). The returns to face-to-face interactions: Knowledge spillovers in Silicon Valley. NBER Working Paper 30147.

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