The Idea Ecology

Ecology is the study of interactions among organisms and their environment. Ideas too have their ecology.

When the environment is VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, a lone genius is unlikely to find the most elegant solution to a complex problem. A network of curious people, with deep knowledge in different domains, has a higher probability of finding optimal solutions.

Brian Eno calls such a network scenius – scenius is genius embedded not in the gene but in the scene or the environment. It is collective genius. Just like diversity is important in an ecological system it is also essential in the Idea Ecology.

Stuart Koffman has postulated the theory of the Adjacent Possible – biological systems morph into more complex systems through incremental steps and not big leaps, because in a given configuration only certain types of next steps are possible. You can’t jump straight from Big Bang to Humans. Evolution is a story of a long series of adjacent possible steps.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, proposes that ideas follow a similar adjacent possible trajectory. The perimeter of one idea needs to be pushed till you reach the next related or rival idea. If you want to innovate you need to expose yourself to the conversation and debate around an idea. As Johnson puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

To generate good ideas you need to have weak ties with an appropriate network in the idea ecology. Just like you have close friends and distant acquaintances, in the idea network you have strong ties and weak ties. The more weak ties you have the more widely connected you are in the network and there is a higher probability that you will receive more information that will help you refine your idea.

In an ecological system the inhabiting organisms compete, but they also cooperate. French sociologist, Emile Durkheim has called humans Homo duplex or the two-level man – one level of the ordinary individual and another level of the sacred united, where we feel collective anger of a war, collective joy of end of a war, or collective grief of a natural calamity.

To solve the complex problems we face today and to flourish as a species, learning how things work in an idea ecology – a right mix of independent and collaborative thinking, is an essential life skill.