‘Today’s partnerships… tomorrow’s breakthroughs’

In this introduction to our Special Report, Richard Saul Wurman considers the true nature of innovation and argues that, from the time of Ancient Greece to today’s digital age, our most significant breakthroughs are frequently rooted in a “partnership of ideas” – a simple but ultimately powerful exchange between individuals

I was recently thinking about the word ‘innovation’ and it struck me that this word gets bandied about so much – be it by car manufacturers, cereal brands or all manner of gadgets and equipment makers – that it no longer has any meaning.

To understand what innovation really is, I tried to think about how we come up with the simplest of ideas. And it occurred to me that one of the most interesting ways of innovating is, actually, through subtraction.

Ninety per cent of all breakthroughs are in conversations between two people. And what is a conversation between two people but a partnership of ideas?’

It’s something I pondered back in 1984 when I created the very first TED Conference. One of that event’s most innovative features was this concept of ‘less is more’. With my latest conference series, WWW, I decided that it was time to pare things back even further and celebrate that most basic of human interactions: conversation.

The most innovative moments, the sparks of ideas, and fundamental truths come from conversations between two people. So I invited 50 of the most extraordinary people I know to participate in a conference whose subtext was ‘Intellectual Jazz’ – simple pairings of these amazingly interesting individuals prompted by a question, generating a conversation. And so it went – an astrophysicist and a microbiologist, an actor and a playwright, a jazz musician and a classical one.

Power of conversation

These 50 individuals, who included Steven Pinker, Yo-Yo Ma and Frank Gehry, sat on two couches facing each other – close together so they were more vulnerable – and asked to react to one of 25 different premises, all of which celebrated the 21st century, while drawing attention to the new patterns and convergences affecting our health, our various pursuits and the clarity and creativity implicit in conversation. What followed was remarkable.

Now, why does this represent the power of partnerships? Well, I firmly believe that 90 per cent of all breakthroughs are the result of conversations between two people. After all, what is a conversation between two people but a partnership of ideas? That’s Watson and Crick, Sergey [Brin] and Larry [Page], Gilbert and Sullivan. In all of those cases, the starting point was two people having a conversation and from that came astonishing things.

My life has been all about creating ideas, and if I have an idea I then need to have a conversation about it. That, to me, is a partnership. It’s an intellectual partnership. It’s Socrates and Aristotle. In fact, at the opening of the WWW conference, I said “Welcome to the great leap backwards.” The point is, this could have happened 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece. These intellectual partnerships have been happening for millennia and their legacy remains with us today.

For example, what is the essence of a city? Maybe a city started with people sitting around a fire realising that they all did something well and that nobody did everything well. And from there they created a group, then a town, then a city. If you reduce that down to its essence, you have the very definition of a partnership. And it’s through those partnerships that people create the things that matter.

Making connections

Good ideas are fragile. So if you see an idea, you have to make a rule: for five minutes nobody can say something bad about it.  What happens then is that maybe it gets a bit of life about it and gets tested out. Again, it’s about the conversation, the connection.

The creation of TED was all about the convergence of three disciplines; technology, entertainment and design. It is these divergent partnerships that are important for addressing global issues. Climate change, for example, is an issue that requires the ultimate convergence of disciplines. There’s always a duality in a discovery of new ideas and the convergence of new ideas. But to address global issues such as climate change, you must also address preparedness – how to prepare for what happens when you combine and create ideas.

In today’s digital age we have more opportunity than ever to forge those partnerships and have those breakthrough conversations. But that human impulse for two people to sit down and share – and have – ideas, is a very basic one. I have no doubt that they are doing it at Apple right now. Also, as I write, Facebook is releasing its new phone and the inspiration behind that will have started in the same way. But consider this: Tomorrow we won’t have a Twitter or a Facebook. Sure, they will be with us for a while, but everything we have is going to change. We will have other ways of communicating with each other and of connecting people.

My point is, the latest communication innovations are just a sideshow. It’s not the things we already have that are interesting but those that have yet to come. But you can be certain of this: that everything that follows will be the result of a conversation – a partnership.