The 18th century coffee house

What does a coffee house have to do with innovation? A great deal! That’s according to Steven Johnson, the author of a recent book “Where good ideas come from? The natural history of innovation”.

Tracing the history of renaissance, Steven Johnson says: “The 18th century English coffee houses fertilized countless enlightenment era innovations, everything from science of electricity to the insurance industry, to democracy itself”.

He sites two reasons for this. Coffee houses represented a space where people could get together and exchange thoughts. This is where ideas were formed and morphed into something more. Steven Johnson notes that an astonishing number of ideas at that time had some association with coffee houses.

Secondly, coffee also brought about a major change in habit. Prior to coffee, alcoholic beverages had been the primary drink in Europe, both for the masses and the elite. The transition from alcohol to tea and coffee, marked a transition from a depressant to a stimulant. We can imagine the collective impact of such change. Perhaps it is not an accident that renaissance coincided with the advent of tea and coffee.

Throughout history, coffee houses have often been a place of intense social interaction. In the 17th century, the Ottoman historian İbrahim Peçevi wrote about the prevailing culture in coffee houses:

“These were enlightened gentlemen who are lively and addicted to amusement. They could gather as groups of twenty or thirty in each coffee house. Some of them reading books, discussing rules of good manners, as others were playing chess or backgammon. Some brought their newest poems or discussed art.”

It is easier to see the role of coffee houses in innovation if we understand how innovation works. Steven Johnson explains the innovation process using the idea of “exaptation”. Exaptation is a term used by evolutionary biologists to describe a phenomenon where a trait optimized by an organism for a specific use, gets hijacked for an entirely different function. In the technology world, world wide web is a perfect example of exaptation. Tim Berners Lee proposed web as a mechanism for sharing information, but the web has been adapted for various purposes such as shopping, watching videos and sharing photos.

Most innovations happen in this manner. Arthur Koestler eloquently said in his book The Act of Creation – “All decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines”.

Stanford business school professor, Martin Reuf investigated the relationship between business innovation and diversity. Reuf’s discovery endorsed the coffee house model of social networking. His study showed that most creative individuals had broad social networks that extended outside their organization and involved people from diverse fields of expertise.

“Diverse, horizontal social networks, in Reuf’s analysis were three times more innovative than uniform, vertical networks. The limited reach of the network meant that interesting concepts from the outside rarely entered the entrepreneurs’ consciousness. But the entrepreneurs who built bridges outside their ‘islands’ were able to borrow or co-opt new ideas from external environments and put them to use in a new context”.

Collisions of ideas that happen when different fields of expertise converge in a shared physical or intellectual space lead to creativity. Physical proximity often increased exaptation, as reiterated by Kevin Dunbar, a psychologist at McGill University.

Dunbar studied the origin of innovative ideas by closely observing scientists at work. He setup cameras in four leading molecular biology laboratories and recorded as much of the action as possible. The most interesting discovery in Dunbar’s study turned out to be the physical location where important breakthroughs occurred. Those happened during regular lab meetings, where a dozen or so researchers would gather and informally present and discuss their latest work. In essence, “the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table”.

Steven Johnson’s conclusion in the book is loud and clear. Chance favors the connected mind. Interacting with people who have expertise in different areas tends to generate far more interesting ideas than being a lonely inventor.

Spotlunch helps you build connections and find a shared space – we hope spotlunches will spur innovation just like the 18th century coffee houses!

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