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Why Co-Creation Is Key to Survival in a Trillion-Computer Era


It may not feel like it, but the computer revolution is only getting started. Having one PC or even multiple devices that are like supercomputers in our pocket isn’t the end of the story. It’s the beginning. The Age of Trillions is around the corner. Trillions of computing devices, communicating with each other and with us is a done deal.

The computer industry already makes more than 10 billion microprocessors a year and that number is climbing rapidly. When they all start to connect, the very idea of computing will turn inside out. Industries will fall overnight and others will be born. Trillions will mean an explosion in complexity the magnitude of which we’ve never seen before. If handled properly, complexity equals power, but untamed complexity can cause great harm. If we want to understand how we will harness the power of all that complexity for business innovation and creativity, how organizations will not only survive but thrive in this new age, the McIntosh is a pretty good place to start.

No, not the Macintosh computer made by Apple. I mean the original brand—the actual tart and delicious McIntosh apple. The McIntosh is an innovation success story. By taking advantage of unbounded complexity, the McIntosh holds valuable lessons for businesses and society on the cusp of Trillions.

Cultivating Innovation

Who invented the McIntosh apple? Was it the eponymous farmer John, who stumbled on and nurtured some seedlings that were growing wild in his field? Or was it Mother Nature, when she evolved a plant with seeds that could vary dramatically from their parent tree? Michael Pollan, in his book The Botany of Desire, catalogs apples that taste like nuts, and lemons, and even bananas; and those are just a few of the American variety.

What’s peculiar about the McIntosh is that you can’t just plant a McIntosh seed (or any apple seed for that matter) and get another tasty apple. The seeds are so variable that every McIntosh apple you eat today can be traced back to that original seedling. Thousands of years ago civilization figured out how to graft parts of a successful apple tree onto other varieties of rootstock and we soon had orchards of Macs. It’s curious to think that the first people to hack a Mac were literally cutting and pasting with clippers and shovels.

There is no single answer to the question, “Who invented the McIntosh apple?” Several players contributed to creating new value within the given economy. Individuals like farmer John worked hard to find and cultivate tasty apple varieties; civilization honed successful breeding techniques to scale up the most promising cultivars; and Nature laid down a generative framework. It’s what we call an example of beautiful complexity. Innovation in Nature doesn’t happen from some top-down grand design and we shouldn’t assume that innovation in the next information age will either.

Beautiful Complexity

When we reach the Age of Trillions your products and services will live in a richly percolating ecology where new forms of value emerge from serendipitous re-combinations.

Nature’s generative framework is a set of constants: seeds in fertile soil will grow, the Sun will rise, the rain will fall, the seasons will change, gravity will pull on those apples as surely as Newton’s law; and variables: the next offspring of this tree might be sweet or sour or tough or soft or hardy or delicate. Generativity is one of Nature’s most successful means of surviving and thriving in a hostile and complex world: by adhering to a few simple rules, a wide range of possibilities can be generated from the original creation.

This powerful architectural pattern—of laying down a framework that encourages and rewards customers to co-create new value—is a powerful way to drive developments that are more than the sum of their parts. Nature didn’t “know” ahead of time that something called a McIntosh apple would ever exist or become so popular, but defined the rules of the game that made this innovation possible. Imagine if your organization could foster a generative framework and that fertile soil encouraged your customers to co-create unimaginable new value.

Generativity can be used to tame chaos, confer predictability, and, like the McIntosh, foster invention. A simple example of generativity in everyday life can be seen in parking lots. If you pave an empty field, drivers will park in whatever way is most convenient for them but that in aggregate can turn out to be random, confusing, and at times, dangerous. Yet paint some yellow lines, and with a few open paths for entry and exit, drivers will happily organize themselves. Those lines are a simple form of generativity that merely holds chaos at bay. Or consider the generativity of Mendeleev’s periodic table. By leaving empty spaces with a predictable order at the time he originally created it, he future-proofed his “product” and gained access to the wisdom of a crowd of scientists who later spent their lives filling in the blanks. He found a pattern that helped civilization predict future elements that were discovered decades later. Generativity can do more than just tame chaos; it can also confer predictability.

For one of the most dramatic examples of a generative framework that can lead to wildly creative new invention, check out Conway’s life, a little experiment created by a Cambridge mathematician that simulates the life and death of squares on a checkerboard. The framework has four rules, about loneliness, stasis, overcrowding, and reproduction. Those are the constants, but you can vary where you place the squares and in what pattern you place them. You play by filling in an initial configuration of squares, then those rules are applied over and over again as surprising results bubble up.

Co-evolution Wins

There are now many more computers in the world than there are people. In just a few years, we will enter a trillion-node era whether we’re ready for it or not. Strange new varieties of connected products, services, and environments will proliferate in the wilds of this burgeoning ecology. Atoms and bits will connect in ways nobody can predict. At worst we may become handmaidens to untamed—and malignant—technological complexity. Organizations will struggle to keep up.

Bill Joy, of Sun Microsystems fame, coined a Law that stated, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” If organizations don’t find ways to tap into the creativity and passions of their most dedicated farmer Johns, if they count on designing everything from the top down and controlling every aspect of their product and brand with just the talent within their four walls, they will fail. But successful organizations will learn to plant generative seeds and tend the garden of their customers’ inventions—even if those creations are outside of their control. Such organizations will let their customers share in the profits from what they co-create.  Here’s the lesson of the McIntosh: find and promote wild fruits that emerge and turn them towards the sun.

Mickey McManus, President and CEO of MAYA Design and co-author of the recently published Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology, was a speaker at the Techonomy 2012 conference in the “Immortality for Fun and Profit” session. Click here for a complete video archive of Techonomy 2012.

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