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Engineer serendipity

Parents often comment on the startling creativity of their children. Pablo Picasso famously remarked, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.” I’ll go further. Every child is an artist, yes, but also a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur too. Young children benefit from not having suffered long years in an educational system that splits the world into discrete ‘subjects’, and so their minds are still free to span the silos that industrialism will try everything it can to encourage them into during the following years.

There isn’t a theory of innovation that doesn’t acknowledge that new ideas arise when two (or more) existing ideas smash into each other (the film-maker Kirby Ferguson sums it up by saying “everything is a re-mix”) and that game-changing innovations are usually the result of two seemingly unrelated disciplines getting in a tangle.

Successful optimists are therefore serendipity engineers. They find ways to smash themselves (and others) into new ideas – exposing themselves to different thoughts, philosophies and approaches. Somewhere in the ensuing mental car crash the right collision of ideas will provide them with another tool in their quest to make the world better. In fact, to the successful optimist this becomes second nature. “Creativity is just connecting things,” Steve Jobs told Wired in 1996. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

steve jobs

So, if innovation is “ideas having sex” then successful optimists are intellectual sluts, happily throwing themselves into forums where they aren’t experts, reading outside of their existing frames of reference, promoting debate and dialogue and finding joy in the accidents that might frustrate or annoy others. This is why that ideas-powerhouse the MIT media lab is full of glass walls, so that everybody can see into everybody else’s lab, and why the head of MIT’s Smart Cities group Bill Mitchell designs buildings to ensure people bump into each other.

There is a much overused maxim in corporations, that creativity is all about ‘thinking outside the box’. Successful optimists know that you can’t think outside the box unless you get outside the box, maintaining that spirit of happy exploration that characterises childhood.