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The importance of copying

Posted by Nicholas Colloff Director of Innovation

21st Oct 2011

Light bulb still from 'Everything is a Remix Part 3' by Kirby Ferguson

There are no 'Eureka!' moments, says Nicholas Colloff, good ideas emerge through the laborious processes of copying existing ideas and combining them in new ways.

When I first took up my post in innovation in Oxfam a kind soul left me a bottle of 'Super Bubbles' on my desk as a welcome present. This conjures up a familiar cultural assumption about innovation: good ideas spring upon us. We cry 'Eureka!', leap out of our baths, pad down dripping to the laboratory (which we always heroically occupy on our own) and an invention is born!

This excellent video by Kirby Ferguson is a compelling reminder that good ideas do not spring unbidden into our minds as we blow bubbles in our baths or sing in our showers - though that can play a part - but emerge through the more laborious processes of copying, transforming existing ideas  and combining  them in new ways.

The examples here are technological but the same principle obtains in social innovation. 

A co-operative, for example, is an invention that combined:

  • ...the capacity of people to meet and collaborate together on a sustained basis (not a new idea) 

  • ...with the idea that you could accumulate sufficient savings together by subscription (not a new idea) 

  • purchase goods in bulk at wholesale prices (not a new idea) 

  • ...and sell it in a shop (not a new idea either)

  • ...and share the surplus on a corporate basis ( get the idea). 

Yet the Rochdale Pioneers are precisely that (pioneers). Because out of that combination of existing ideas arose an innovative economic and social force that has multiplied and grown, and is today discovering new resilience in the face of financial crisis and market shock. My groceries are often bought at a Co-op, some of my savings, such as they are, are kept in a Co-op and my energy (as of yesterday) is sold to me by a Co-op!

From an Oxfam perspective, one of our challenges is to give ourselves sufficient time to look about us for interesting things to copy - again what comes through the video is the time necessary to accumulate sufficient pieces of any potential combination. 

As the director of a partner in an African country, who had the (mis)fortune to have no less than three Oxfam International affiliates as partners, said: 'The one thing you have in common for certain is that you are always in a hurry.'

One innovation might be away days for programme staff that do not consist of us furiously planning our next steps over ubiquitous flip charts (and talking to ourselves) but going outwards in search of the work of others that may provide suitable material to steal.

On a recent field trip, I noticed a social enterprise aiming to deliver a service (in public sanitation) that we were laboriously helping a community group establish one example of. 'Had anyone,' I asked, 'visited the social enterprise?' 'No time,' was the reply.  

Making time to accumulate material to copy is a critical necessity in the process of innovation.  How do we plan for that?

Blog post written by Nicholas Colloff

Director of Innovation

More by Nicholas Colloff

Nicholas Colloff