SFIP reviews and recommends some of today’s most compelling writing on innovation:

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal.

One thing’s for sure, you can’t fault McGonigal on passion: she expects to see the Nobel Prize awarded to a game designer within her lifetime. In many ways, the subtitle of this book is its summary. While the author doesn’t shine as a writer or an especially persuasive advocate, she is one of the foremost authorities in the field and has a great deal of interest to say, especially to non-gamers (like me). And if she’s right in her central thesis, it gives us much food for thought: can computer games, those archetypes of digital solipsism, really be the answer to connecting us better to each other, and to our work?  For better or worse, McGonigal claims that “Games, in the twenty-first century, will be a primary platform for enabling the future.”


Where Good Ideas Come From
: The Natural History of Innovation, by Steven Johnson.

“Why is a coral reef such an engine of biological innovation? Why do cities have such an extensive history of idea creation? Why was Darwin able to hit upon a theory that so many brilliant contemporaries of his missed?” If questions like these get your juices going (as they do ours), read the book. Johnson (who made a splash with his controversial thesis “Everything Bad is Good for You”) does terrific work in surveying the full landscape of innovation at varying scales, in many domains, and from different perspectives, and puts his conclusions into solid and useful order.

Innovations that Nourish the Planet: State of the World 2011, edited by Linda Starke.

Talk about bottom-up:  the current edition of Worldwatch Institute’s consistently excellent annual State of the World series shows how African small-holders are actively participating in R&D for new seeds and farming practices; how affordable, appropriate technology drip irrigation systems can increase yields by 50%-100%; and other marvels of innovation that give new meaning to “small is beautiful.”

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, by Tim Brown.

From IDEO’s President and CEO, perhaps the definitive treatise on design thinking and its applicability to a broad array of problem solving areas. Of special interest to SFIP is a section devoted to social change and the design-driven process that IDEO has done much to pioneer and develop. From the IDEO website: “This book introduces design thinking, the collaborative process by which the designer’s sensibilities and methods are employed to match people’s needs with what is technically feasible and a viable business strategy. In short, design thinking converts need into demand. It’s a human-centered approach to problem solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and creative.”

The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz.

The former head of scenario planning for Royal Dutch Shell (an acknowledged leader in the field) and member of the Monitor Group’s Global Business Network, Schwartz had made a life-long career of the “long view,” and it shows. He explains his method of developing scenarios that capture a broad range of factors, both within and outside the organization, and allow participants to think through the ramifications in an uncertain world. The result? Better decision making, resource allocation, and strategic direction.

The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison.

The authors offer a compelling thesis about how things are changing at the fundamental level of the business and innovation environment, and prescribe specific tangible actions for both organizations and individuals to who wish to harness these forces to achieve better results and greater success. They do an outstanding job of capturing the many trends accelerating around us in a coherent story about how the locus of power is shifting to a dramatically different “pull-based” paradigm, enabled by technological, structural, and behavioral change, that will leave the “push-based” legacy system in its dust.

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, by Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn

Christensen, the originator of the disruptive innovation framework popularized in books such as The Innovator’s Dilemma, here trains his sites on the problem called our public education system. By his own account, he had initial misgivings on how well his framework could be applied to this somewhat sui generis sector; but happily, he finds the common elements that allow a very natural fit, and this leads to a trenchant analysis of the problem with surprisingly hopeful prescriptions for solutions, and predictions for the future, e.g.: by  2019, 50% of all high school courses will be on-line. As they say in school: required reading.

When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, by Martin Jacques

Don’t let the somewhat sensationalist title fool you. This is a masterful, scholarly, erudite, and deep analysis of the tectonic shifts taking place in what some pundits call the “new world disorder.” Jacques’ main thesis is not simply that China is an economic powerhouse that can sustain its current growth and leadership; he shows, convincingly, that it is a millennia-old “civilization-state” that will change the way we all grasp “modernization,” and our western bias in understanding the world.

For a taste, try this mind-bender: “…the most extraordinary economic transformation in human history is being presided over by a Communist government during the period which has witnessed the demise of European Communism.” The book is actually a page-turner, and reads more like a political thriller than a text; perhaps Jacques has created a new genre, to go along with his new paradigm. A must-read for anyone interested in global trends and dynamics.

HCEHere Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, by Clay Shirky

I confess that I was initially skeptical of this book, thinking it was another trend-du-jour geek social media apotheosis; but I picked it up after seeing Shirky’s star performance with the TED@State show.  Turns out he’s a profound and original thinker, a scholar, and an important analyst on why this stuff is really important (and relevant to SFIP), to wit:  “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technology.  It happens when society adopts new behaviors.”

CWCommon Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University (itself an inter-disciplinary center with an action agenda) articulates the need for global approaches and the proper role of the public, private, and social sectors with extraordinary precision, while advocating new collaborations:  “Scientific research proceeds in intellectual silos that make far too little contact with one another; research in the physical sciences, biology, engineering, economics, and public health is rarely intertwined, even though we must solve problems of complex systems in which all of these disciplines play a role. The problems  just refuse to arrive in the neat categories of academic departments.

“Moreover, the problems can only be solved through an interactive approach that combines general principles with the details of a specific setting. Academic studies too often begin and end on the basis of general principles without due regard for ground-level complexities.”

AOUThe Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, by Joshua Cooper Ramo

Ramo, former International Editor for Time Magazine and currently Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, spends half his time in Beijing, the rest everywhere, and knows his stuff first hand.  Among numerous provocative and insightful observations, he hits two critically relevant points:  first, the inextricable connection of the arts and humanities with the wider world of politics, science, and even war (see his extended riff on Picasso, Cubism, and the Great War); and second, the need for radically new problem-solving approaches and capacities to meet future challenges.  He charges his readers with a quote from Roberto Unger that could easily be SFIP’s motto:  “The task of imagination is to do the work of crisis without crisis.”

DifThe Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, Societies, by Scott E. Page

By “diversity,” Page most emphatically does not mean gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference (indeed, he shows that disagreement on fundamental values can inhibit problem-solving teams).  No, Page (External Faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute) is on the SFIP wavelength.  His proposition, proven beyond any doubt (he’s an economist), is that combining different problem-solving “perspectives and heuristics” will beat hyper-specialized mono-culture “expert” approaches almost every time.  Except maybe… open-heart surgery.  One canonical example he offers:  “…during World War II, the British brought together twelve thousand people in Bletchley Park… to crack the Nazi Enigma code…. Many of the people brought to Bletchley Park—Brits, Americans, Poles, Aussies—had training we might think appropriate for code breaking. But other people… had been trained as language experts, moral philosophers, classicists, ancient historians, and even crossword puzzle experts.”

INInnovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back, by John Kao

Kao, a prominent innovation consultant, wrote this to stimulate urgent debate during the 2008 presidential primary season, but it remains relevant today.  While his prescriptions are a bit STEM-heavy for our taste, he does recommend a network of “national innovation centers” to stimulate bold activity and support a globally competitive U.S. national strategy based on innovation.  Well-traveled, Kao cites examples of other countries who are eating our lunch, for example:   “Denmark’s government identified the need to deepen the relationship between the arts and business in 2000. The goal was to expose businesses to new creative and artistic skills; encourage new product development, design, and services; and bring about change in organizational cultures.”