The Dirty Secret Behind Real Innovation: How Our Urge To Play Invented The Future

One of the most interesting things about writing books is the macroscopic picture that emerges when you’re done. Larger patterns begin to reveal themselves, bigger questions start to arise.

Take Tomorrowland, my latest book. While technically an examination of those moments in time when science fiction became science fact, the book inadvertently became a study in a very playful form of countercultural rebellion. To put this in simple terms, the larger pattern that revealed itself when I was writing this book is the undeniable fact that the men and women who have invented the future didn’t come from the mainstream.

Not even close.

Across the boards, these folks are maverick innovators. They are far more marginal outsider than cozy insider.

The creator of the world’s first artificial vision implant, for example, was an American (William Dobelle), but he had to fly patients to Portugal to perform the installation surgery because the procedure was illegal in the United States. The inventor of the world’s first flying car (Dezso Molnar) came out of San Francisco subculture, where he was part of the uber-dangerous performance art crew Survival Research Labs. Even the researchers who helped decode the neurobiology of mystical experience, while many of them worked at traditional institutions, all of them were risking their careers to pursue such an “unscientific” pursuit.

This list goes on and on. In fact, out of the 16 different technologies that I examine in Tomorrowland, only a couple of them actually had roots in what anyone would consider traditional bastions of science and technology. The question, of course, is why?

For certain, at an institutional level, organizational inertia is partially to blame. Organizational inertia is fear of failure writ large. It’s that groaning, cumbersome terror that keeps so many companies risk-averse, locked into their “old ways” for of fear of disrupting established revenue streams.

Organizational inertia is exactly what we saw with Kodak. They invented the digital camera, but the invention was such a threat to established product lines that they ignored it—and ended up in bankruptcy court as a result.

But that’s much more the familiar side of the story. On the other side, we find playfulness—deep and important and world-changing.

Now, certainly, play is no longer the dirty word it used to be—but that’s the point.

30 years ago, when most of these Tomorrowland mavericks were starting out, passion and play were hippie notions with zero applications in the “real world.” Seriously, imagine going into a 1980s Gordon Gecko “Greed Is Good” boardroom and trying to convince people that passion mattered and play was arguably the easiest path towards massive innovation and stellar profits. Laughed out of the room doesn’t even come close to what would have happened.

Yet, if you peer under the hood of human innovation, the urge to play is often the first driver one encounters.

We saw exactly this urge with the creation of the personal computer. Steve Wozniak, to offer only one example, got his start as a phone phreaker, literally playing with technology for his own amusement. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the entire DIY entrepreneurial movement we’re now in the midst of got its start with the deep play of technological tinkering.

Another example can be found in bionics. Hugh Herr is both the head of MIT’s Biomechatronics Lab and the inventor of the world’s first bionic ankle. But Herr didn’t set out to be a pioneer. Herr was a rock climber, who lost both of feet in a mountaineering accident. His early “bionic” creations were homemade customized prosthetic limbs—customized so he could continue his climbing career. Out of his urge to play—to both tinker and rock climb—emerged the world’s first bionic limbs.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, makes a similar point in his bestselling book Play, writing: “Those who study the history of the arts and sciences have many examples of discoveries that came about not through the progression of a planned series of experiments… Most often, new discoveries and new learning come when one is open to serendipity, when one welcomes novelties and anomalies, and tries to incorporate those outlying results into the broader field of knowledge. As Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

As it turns out, “that’s funny” has a funny way of inventing the future.

* To learn more about Tomorrowland, check out the website here.

Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and founder and executive director at the Flow Research Collective. His books include: Stealing Fire, the Rise of Superman, Abundance, Bold, West of Jesus, A Small Furry Prayer, among many others. His work has been translated into over 40 languages and appeared in over 100 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes. You can find him online at:
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