Not surprisingly, amazing things happen when groups of inventive people congregate. Edison was able to accomplish so many great things, through trial and error and with the help of other inventors in his lab.
While modern-day labs like Edison’s – where brilliantly creative engineers and scientists perform basic research in search of the next killer app – still bring many innovations to the world, they have sadly been somewhat diminished as of late. Consider Xerox PARC, Bell Labs, and IBM Research – all amazing centers with outstanding records of invention (e.g.: Ethernet, TDMA/CDMA digital telephone technology, hard disks). There are exceptions of course – many small-size enterprises exist solely as creative “do tanks,” and large companies like Google are known for their creative-thinking workforce. Wikipedia lists a number of research and development organizations including those mentioned above and others of past, present, and hopefully future fame.
What was and is unique about these labs is the people – the diversity of human knowledge and the rich interactions that result in an environment of openness fueled by the desire to find novel ideas and approaches. Where do most of us experience this form of stimulation and exchange? Conferences. Think about TED, PopTech!, or Maker Faire. Imagine what could be accomplished if conferences were places of work! The gatherings of Intellectual Ventures (oh, to be a fly on the wall at those!) are the most advanced example I can think of today. I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece “In the Air” about Intellectual Ventures.
I recently attended a Boston conference worth noting for the diversity of people and thought – IDEAS Boston. IDEAS featured presentations ranging from space-suit development to reverse auctions to scientist/artist collaborations to the educational uses of Second Life. Can gatherings such as this help the current generation of inventors make “commitments” or identify opportunities to advance innovation? If there are constructs to bring ideas to the next level and people open to thinking in different ways, absolutely.