Clinton on Creative Networks

January 22, 2013 Leave a comment

I keep making references to Steven Johnson’s book, Future Perfect.  That’s because I find it to be one of the best articulations of what has become possible in this networked world. I am seduced by the idea of peer progressivism.

I have long held the hypothesis that those of us who have committed our lives to social transformation should be able to find a significant competitive advantage in a world of networks.  Our ethos should be one of sharing, one of working together, one of catalyzing our collective power.  Our values resonate with what is possible today.  But the time to step into this opportunity is right now – right as it is emerging.

I am so happy that Johnson’s work is having the impact that it is having, and that is why I’m so glad to share his recent post on Bill Clinton’s appreciation of his work – here it is:

Yesterday marked the opening day of the Clinton Foundation’s “Health Matters” conference in Palm Springs. I had heard a bit of advance word about the conference from a friend who was headed down there, and I had armed him with a copy of Future Perfect to give to Clinton if the opportunity arose. But the gift turned out to be unnecessary. Apparently, Clinton had just finished reading Future Perfect on his own, and spontaneously brought up a number of its arguments in an opening conversation with NBC’s Nancy Snyderman. Along the way, he managed to say kind words about three other books of mine.

This is not the first time that Clinton has spoken about my work; he did a series of speeches that discussed The Invention Of Air in 2009, and to this day lists Invention as one of his all-time favorite books his Facebook page. Needless to say, it’s always thrilling to hear a person of Clinton’s stature and intellect riffing on your work. We’ve never actually met, and other than one or two short snail mail letters, we’ve never had a conversation. But somehow this strange, wonderful dialogue has emerged between us, entirely through the mechanisms of my books and his speeches.

This morning I transcribed the relevant passages from his talk yesterday, and I thought it would be good annotate them with a few comments and related reading suggestions, since in several places he is talking about other people’s research that I cited in Future Perfect:

The great thing about the modern world — and the Internet is both an instrument and a metaphor for it — is that everybody’s connected and everything is connected. It’s like I said if you look at this precipitous drop in life expectancy among white high-school dropouts, there are clear medical reasons for it but there are also psychological and social reasons that have reinforced it. And if you look at what’s working where the places that are growing economically in America, places that are doing best around the world, you have these creative networks of cooperation. There are some things that governments are really good at, and they have to do that; there are some things that the private sector and NGOs are better at, and they have to do that. And then they have to figure out how to keep changing. We are moving into an era, for example, where the only way you can create enough jobs for people, and to generate enough wealth to have decently rising wages is to have creative networks of cooperation. And I think that’s true of this health challenge. It’s the only thing that works. It works everywhere in the world.

That’s the argument of Future Perfect in a nutshell, the driving principle behind what I call peer progressivism in the book: the power of “creative networks of cooperation.”

And by the way, there’s a lot of research on groupthink which proves that. For example, just last week I saw another study, the third I’ve read about in the last decade, that said if you put a group of people with average IQs together and asked them to work on a problem for a year, and you give the same problem to a genius, the group of average intelligence with great numbers working together will work better than one genius acting alone.

I’m not sure if Clinton is referring to another study that he found, but in Future Perfect, the work I cite is the incredibly important research by Scott E. Page. The key to Page’s various experiments is that the “lower IQ” group is diverse in its perspectives and intellectual background. There’s great material on this in Page’s book The Difference, but here’s the summary from Future Perfect:

Diversity does not just expand the common ground of consensus. It also increases the larger group’s ability to solve problems. The pioneer in this line of research is the University of Michigan professor Scott E. Page. Page has spent the past twenty years building a convincing case for what he calls the “diversity trumps ability” theory, demonstrating the phenomenon in sociological studies and mathematical models. Take two groups of individuals and assign to each one some kind of problem to solve. One group has a higher average IQ than the other, and is more homogeneous in its composition. One group, say, is all doctors with IQs above 130; the second group doesn’t perform as well on the IQ tests, but includes a wide range of professions. What Page found, paradoxically, was that the diverse group was ultimately smarter than the smart group. The individuals in the high-IQ group might have been smarter, but when it came to measuring collective intelligence, diversity matters more than individual brainpower.

A few minutes later in the Clinton interview, the conversation turned to the role of corporations in global change:

I think first of all more of our companies are involved globally, and more of our citizens are involved through non-governmental organizations, even if it’s just through Internet giving, modest amounts of money. But I think that a lot of these companies will continue to lead the way. There’s an interesting book — if you want to be optimistic about the future — by Steven Johnson, who’s a great science writer. It’s called Future Perfect. His first two books, one of them is called The Ghost Map, which is about how the cholera epidemic was solved in London; and one’s called The Invention Of Air, which is about the discovery of oxygen. But he’s turned his attention to the modern world. The book points out that companies that branded themselves as being good for their employees and their health and wellness, and their children’s aspirations, good for their customers and communities — over the last up and down craziness of the last twelve years, [those companies] had a rate of return to their shareholders that was almost ten times as much as companies that had only a quarterly focus on quarterly returns and cared about their shareholders here [raising hand high] and their employees, and customers, and communities here. [lowering hand.] So I think more and more companies are going to adopt this model within the United States and beyond our borders.

This argument draws on the research of Rajendra Sisodia, David Wolfe and Jagdish N. Sheth, original published in their excellent book, Firms of Endearment. The chapter in Future Perfect that deals with it takes its name from a phrase coined by Whole Foods founder, John Mackey: “conscious capitalism.” As it happens, an entire book called Conscious Capitalism–on the movement to make corporations answerable to more diverse networks of stakeholders–was just published this week. I’ve just started reading it myself, and I suspect it will be a great conversation starter this year.

As if those three book mentions weren’t enough, he even squeezed in a nod to Where Good Ideas Come From, when Snyderman asked what he was reading lately:

Well, I just finished — I’m reading a new book by this guy Steven Johnson, on the history of innovation, and what really makes it work. And I’m looking forward to getting through that…

He’s also reading Nate Silver’s book, like everybody else I know. (Including me.)

The whole session is of course worth watching: some very interesting remarks about progress in the obesity epidemic, along with some revealing (and quite moving) discussion of Hillary’s current health (it’s fine, apparently) and her political future.

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