Bill Gates has recently promoted the notion of a « frictionless capitalism. » But even if it were other than a myth, it would not be a good idea because it would mark the end of innovation. Friction can be productive when it helps us to be reflective about what we have taken for granted. Innovation occurs when generative friction stimulates reflexivity to recognize new recombinations.

The Sense of Dissonance

Search is the watchword of the information age, but in this study of innovation David Stark examines a different kind of search – when we don’t know what we’re looking for but will recognize it when we find it. Drawing on John Dewey’s notion of collaborative inquiry, Stark uses ethnography to study the perplexing situations in which actors search for what’s valuable. His cases include machine tool makers in Hungary, new media workers in Silicon Alley, and derivatives traders on Wall Street. In coping with uncertainty, organizations benefit from the friction of competing criteria of worth. The dissonance of diverse principles can lead to discovery.

Structural Folds: Generative Disruption in Overlapping Groups

What is a social group across time in network terms? This is the key sociological question that Balazs Vedres and I address in this paper. We identify a distinctive network position – the structural fold – at the overlap of cohesive group structures. We show that this structure contributes to creative disruption: groups with structural folds show higher performance but are also more unstable. In the final part of the paper we identify lineages of cohesion: across a longer time frame, groups separate and reunite in an ongoing pattern of interweaving.

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American Journal of Sociology, 120(4):1144-1194, January 2015.

Game Changer: The Topology of Creativity

In this paper, Mathijs de Vaan, Balazs Vedres, and I study the social sources of creative success in the video game industry. Teams are most creatively successful when they are composed of overlapping groups that are cognitively heterogeneous.

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Society Online: The Internet In Context. Sage, 2003, pp. 173-88.

Permanently Beta

Researchers in science and technology studies have long-recognized that the design process is not completed when manufacturers ship out a new product. Instead, users complete the design process when they resist some uses inscribed in the product, identify other affordances, and modify the product. All products, and especially new and unfamiliar ones, entail considerable interpretive flexibility. The new user innovation communities make this insight a part of corporate strategy. Instead of a hit or miss approach, they actively foster communities of users and involve their participation at ever-earlier stages of the design process. This is search when you don’t know what you’re looking for, relying on the users to recognize it when they find it.