What if the groundwork of your innovation has already been laid for you? What if there were enormous databases of information and ideas out there for anyone to use? This is exactly what the basic infrastructures that power our everyday lives offer us. Think of all the governmental organizations, open websites, and public libraries that give us access to free knowledge. When most people hear the word infrastructure, they think of big bureaucracy–not radical innovation. But the truth is that you can find countless opportunity for creativity in infrastructures.
Americans have had a love-hate relationship with governmental infrastructure for over three hundred years–from eighteenth-century colonial rebellion to twenty-first-century Ayn Rand bumper stickers to JFK’s 1961 call to “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
Nowadays we only hear about infrastructure when it fails–when a train crashes or a bridge falls or a space program shuts down, but infrastructure is a permanent and reliable source of creative inspiration for tons of people. Infrastructures are massive collections of resources greater than any single individual or business. These deep reservoirs of knowledge put things into place that allow us to be innovative.
Infrastructure doesn’t just refer to roads, airports, the military, utilities, and the other basic services that keep contemporary civilization running–it also includes crucial sources of and outlets for sharing new information: libraries, universities, the Internet, broadcast capabilities, geological surveys, meteorological services, and institutions for research on space, healthcare, and all areas of science.
Infrastructures give us a competitive advantage, huge shortcuts to innovation, but their creative potential has an expiration date. Remember that the Internet was originally developed for the Department of Defense in the 1950s, then used for NASA research and by universities in the 1960s and 1970s. Eventually, everyone around the world could use it and it lost its competitive advantage. The same is true of GPS, which comes from satellite technology, and now appears everywhere. The challenge is to tap into the creative potential of an infrastructure while it’s still fresh. Here are three steps to take when making infrastructures work for you.
Find what you’re looking for. The call sounds almost too obvious: to look for the things that will help you. But it’s easy to overlook the vast, open-access catalogues, archives, indices, and directories out there just waiting to help you innovate. Actively seek them out. Go to government websites (like http://www.usa.gov/directory/federal/index.shtml?query) where you can learn about any educational opportunity imaginable. Talk to librarians. You can search through anything from the Library of Congress to the Department of Patents from the comfort of your own home. Take advantage of community colleges. Read through the relevant pamphlets, materials, and websites offered by local and state governments. All of these resources will help you make intelligent decisions as you run your innovation experiments.
Use what we have now. We encounter infrastructures on an everyday basis, yet we rarely take advantage of their innovative opportunities. PBS and NPR both have extensive services for innovators–including series geared towards anyone from K-12 instructors teaching innovation to entrepreneurs. Attend public lectures. They’ll open your mind to ideas and trends you hadn’t considered before. Look into research findings published regularly by National Science Universities, the National Health Association, the National Science Board, and other public research institutions. Take college courses. Go to your local municipality or your local state, which almost always have incubators–research labs that connect you with like-minded people and that give grants for helping you start your own work. Open your eyes and you’re bound to find something you didn’t realize was there all along.
Add to what we have. Contributing to the growth of existing infrastructures is a powerful way to mobilize your creative powers. Teach, blog, volunteer. Enroll in massive online open courses. Share materials through COINs, or collaborative open innovation networks. Participate in Citizen Science–a twenty-first century spin on the eighteenth-century tradition of asking non-professionals to help with scientific projects. Consider, for example, the way ornithologists ask birders to survey state parks and share what they see. Or the way geneticists part of the human genome project ask people to record information about their own genome. The limits of Citizen Science are constantly expanding as more radical forms of amateur participation become available in space exploration and the development of other technologies. At the heart of the next big scientific breakthrough just might be someone like you.
If radical change is what you seek, then what you need is a stable foundation on which to build that innovation. Think of it this way: the infrastructures that support our modern world have done the heavy lighting for you. Now, it’s up to you to build on that groundwork. What new layer will you add to old stone?