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Get Lucky: Create Serendipity to Spur Innovation

The Princes of Serendip

The Princes of Serendip

This was a big panel (five people from IBM, Deloitte Center for the Edge, Dell and the Community Roundtable) talking about serendipity. The word serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole who formed it from the Persian fairy tale The three princes of Serendip. The session was introduced as follows:

Call it chance, luck, or juju, serendipity is the act of unexpectedly finding something of value. It is the muse of innovation and a silent driver of business; consider how Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of the antibiotic penicillin revolutionized medicine, reducing suffering across the entire world. From the world changing to the mundane task of finding relevant information on Google+ or Twitter, serendipity is the mysterious force that gives us the breaks that many of us seek. But what is serendipity? How do you encourage it? Is there a downside to it? How does it apply to work, art or play? Can you design for serendipity? We say you can and should. Whether you’re building the next super social network, doing scientific research, or building a community, there are steps you can take and skills you can develop to help you recognize and act on it. It is more than just naturally being fortuitous; rather, it takes practice to get lucky.

A very quick defition of serendipity would be: “the accidental discovery that leads to unexpected value”. How does innovation relate to serendipity? Innovation (unlike invention) needs to be accepted by society. There are things you can do to increase the chances of serendipity. One panel member calls that “facilitated creativity”. Interestingly this was the second time this week that I heard somebody recommending to have community management at the executive level. Why? Because facilitation is critical especially in virtual spaces. They then talked a lot about what kind of conscious design decisions you can make for your physical spaces when you want to encourage serendipity. These were a bit obvious (“obvious” would be my summary of the session): long lunch tables, open spaces and unconference type meetings, diversity in the room, introducing constraints, transparent glass walls, etc.

Kulasooriya made an interesting point: ambient location technologies (as discussed by Amber Case) will make cities even more important as “spiky places” for serendipitous connections. A term that relates to this is “coindensity”.