A collection of strong and weak ties comprise the innovation ecosystem's social network. Strong ties are those with whom you interact most and have an emotional bond such as your family, friends, and close co-workers. Weak ties are your acquaintances and business colleagues. To reduce the over embeddedness of knowledge, a continual flow of rejuvenating information within the innovation ecosystem is necessary. When networks are comprised mainly of strong, dense ties, there is a risk they will not include any new knowledge that can be brought to bear on a particular problem. When only around like minded people we are often susceptible to the Illusion of Validity even in the face of facts counter to our beliefs. The echo chambers of social media are a prime example of this phenomenon. Despite research suggesting a mix of strong ties and weak ties are the most favorable to encouraging innovation, people and organizations tend to gravitate to homogenized environments, and as a result, they have access to the same information. This over-reliance on strong ties can result in firms failing due to the lack of new information to address the problems they are facing or validate a failing solution. Unfortunately, due to this illusion of validity, homogenization of the network, and an absence of an appreciation of new knowledge from seemingly unrelated industries further diminishes the capacity for innovation.
This new knowledge can come from a wide range of sources. The innovation ecosystem must seek to continually rejuvenate itself by connecting knowledge generated within the network and global pipelines. This strategy includes strengthening ties between local institutions involved in research and development (i.e. universities, labs) and the actors within the network. It also includes establishing global ties beyond the city’s local ecosystem. These generators of knowledge are essential to the innovation capacity of a city. This generation of new knowledge can be accomplished not only by formalizing relationships but also by making the information and activities discoverable. This discovery process is also true of companies within the network. Half the battle is knowing that particular information, individuals, or entities exist.
Additionally, an ecosystem needs to value the knowledge and experiences of those migrating to the city and make it easier for them to integrate it into the network. This diffusion can happen naturally. However, it is also helpful to recognize the benefits of this inflow of knowledge and make an intentional effort to facilitate its dissemination. The speed and efficiency at which this knowledge is available play a significant part in the success of the ecosystem to make use of it and the potential of innovation to be generated from it.
The city is comprised of diverse clusters of people that sequester the knowledge and know-how specific to each of their networks. A healthy innovation ecosystem builds bridges between these clusters and establishes knowledge flow between them. These gaps separating these groups are referred to as “structural holes.” Bridging between these clusters facilitates the transfer of new information. This flow of non-redundant knowledge is helpful in developing new insights and is commonly the source of radical innovation. The bridges that enable this process include a mix of individuals and organizations who work within these structural holes. Examples include universities, venture capitalists, law firms, and other consultants who provide services to a diverse client base.
The degree of overlap between these groups within the ecosystem and quality of the bridges can have a considerable influence on the innovation capacity of the city. Michael Storper, through his research on the divergence of the San Francisco’s and Los Angeles’ economies, attributes much of San Francisco’s success to its dense social networks that brought together diverse groups such as those in academia, the counterculture, and defense contractors. Alex Pentland’s social physics research further underscored the benefits of social tie densities. He concludes that density and diversity of the network were “ a key determinant behind the flow of ideas between individuals, which in turn determines the spread of new behaviors. Higher social tie density produces greater levels of idea flow, leading to increases in productivity and innovation.” As we will discuss in future posts, a high level of trust, a culture of collaboration, and an ecosystem of diverse clusters enable the bridges spanning a network’s structural holes.