Everyone knows of the old saying “Great minds think alike,” usually said as a kind of joke when two people have the same idea at the same time. But just how true is that statement? In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that bigger, better innovations happen when people of wildly different backgrounds and ideas come together and combine their expertise.
The Medici Effect
In 2004, Frans Johansson published his best-selling book, The Medici Effect, a ground-breaking work outlining a phenomenon of the same name that the author had come to recognize in the world of innovation. The theory draws upon the history of the wealthy and sophisticated Medici family of 14th-century Italy. Their patronage facilitated the intersection of a group of artisans from all over Europe, including painters, poets, scientists, and philosophers, who came together and ended up pooling their collective ideas in many ways. This meeting of highly creative and skilled individuals from varying backgrounds and professions largely spearheaded the Renaissance period, which was one of the most innovative and productive periods of human history across the fields of invention, art, philosophy, and science.
So, what exactly is the Medici Effect? In his research, Johansson used the term to describe the idea that the best concepts and innovations are developed at the intersection of brilliant minds from all walks of life – that new ideas are really just new combinations of old ideas. People from different regions, professions, mindsets, industries, and cultures can come together to form some of the best, most innovative ideas and solutions of this century. His theory has been proven time and time again throughout history and into the present.
This ability to see the opportunity created by connecting separate ideas together is what is calledassociative fluency. Its the skill to see what “could be” from disparate activities, technologies and ideas. In Serial entrepreneurs, their associative fluency skill is highly tuned to see what others don’t see.
One of the most exciting fields where this is in evidence is that of biomimicry architecture – architecture that imitates various qualities of the natural world, bringing engineering, design, and biology together. For example, the architect Mick Pearce was commissioned to design an enormous shopping and office complex in Harare, the capitol of Zimbabwe. The catch: the developers wanted this building to use a passive climate control system, i.e., one that didn’t employ central air conditioning.
While this may sound impossible, Pearce knew that there were already such structures in existence: termite mounds. African termites must keep their mounds at a steady temperature of 87°F in order to grow the fungus that is their primary food source. When you take into consideration the drastic variation in temperature between night and day on the African savannah, it is truly remarkable that they manage to regulate the structures’ temperature so precisely. They do it by outfitting the mounds with a unique ventilation system originating around the base. By opening and closing valves connected to this system, the termites are able to control the movement of air through the structure – hot air rises and is vented toward the top of the structure, which pulls cooler air in from the bottom. By doing so, they can regulate the temperature of their mound regardless of the external temperature.
By taking inspiration from the field of biology and working with a team of engineers that specializes in sustainable building, Pearce designed the largest building in the capitol, which maintains a comfortable temperature throughout the day by cycling out hot air through panels and vents and storing cool night air to be drawn through the building during the day. This building is approximately 90% more energy efficient than the buildings around it, and the design saved the developers $3.5 million because it didn’t require the installation of an air-conditioning system.
We can see results of the Medici Effect more often than ever thanks to the widening reach of the Internet. One such example is the online protein-folding game Foldit, developed by programmers and researchers at the University of Washington. The game gives players the same tools and restrictions real scientists would have when unscrambling these complex proteins. In 2011, a group of gamers came together and were able to solve a puzzle which had stumped scientists for decades: the structure of the extremely complex AIDS-related enzyme, M-PMV. The group was able to solve this highly complex scientific puzzle in only three weeks, paving the way for new AIDS treatment breakthroughs.
Similarly, groups have come together over the Internet to solve crimes, locate bullies and animal abusers, and even create the pilot and plot of an animated children’s show. They have developed video games, music, ideas, web comics, designs, and art that pushes the boundaries of traditional definitions of the word. Like the original Medici family, the Internet facilitates the coming together of diverse minds from all over the globe for big, groundbreaking and innovative ideas, and also for things as small as creatively naming a stray cat. Truly, the Internet has made the world a smaller place, but one with almost infinitely more potential.
Innovators can connect with one another more easily than ever, with the most successful ones taking advantage of their associative fluency to seek out disparate knowledge and creators in diverse fields that could provide the spark for their next great idea.