On Innovation and Horizontal Knowledge

The events I describe in this post comprise one chapter in a series of events which I would describe as formative experiences. Occurring over the past year, these milestones have collectively set me on the path I currently travel.

It’s fall 2010. I’m a brand new student at the University of Waterloo, staring wide-eyed at a hall full of kiosks, noise, and demonstrations. It was clubs day – the two days of each term where the student clubs on campus all clamor for new recruits. It reminded me of a conference, or mini trade-show. When reading the small posters plastered around campus informing everyone of the upcoming showcase, it never quite occurred to me that there would be hundreds of student clubs – covering quite practically everything. To someone with diverse interests, it was a ‘kid and candy store’ moment.

After signing away my email address at seemingly every other booth (essentially agreeing to spam-for-life), I happened upon a table that was a little bit different from the others. It was backdropped by a large pull-up banner instead of folded cardboard -  the kind you see in actual tradeshows – that read ‘IMPACT’ in large white letters set against an orange and yellow texture. Eric Ho would go on to explain exactly what Impact was: a national organization dedicated to student entrepreneurship. To someone raised with the silent expectation to ‘invent’ things – a phenomenon in retrospect that could be considered a self-fulfilling prophesy – the mere existence of such an organization was elating. That Impact was holding an expo the following weekend was even better.

The format was conference-typical; keynotes, workshops, sponsor showcases, and a twitter wall. The people that filled in this framework were all but typical. I first met Albert Lai behind his Kontagent booth at Impact Expo (after asking if he was a Co-op student with Kontagent). It was also the first time I chatted with Kunal Gupta after his workshop on Polar Mobile about inflo. I would later learn he was a Shad Valley alum, and was Impact’s founder and Chair. Larry Smith gave the closing keynote; several months later I would sit in his macroeconomics class, and we would discuss strategy and market research during office hours.

 

But it was Evan Koslow’s opening keynote that would keep me awake at night. The man owns a company you’ve never heard of and never will – unless it’s too late and they’ve already taken over your market. They have expertise in almost everything. from power plants in Bangladesh to chemical processing and encryption algorithms. Koslow holds 50 patents and has 70 pending. Their headquarters is  housed in an entirely unassuming building in an industrial zone of Waterloo. Their website has lots of pictures of smiling people that will fundamentally tell you nothing of what they do – it’s the perfect stealth operation.

Koslow essentially described an established concept for a fuzzy philosophy on education I had long held. For the first time I had a label – a term – for a set of loosely coupled ideas and theories on education, innovation, and learning I had half-wittedly developed over the course of my high-school career. My conundrum is best surmised with a graph:

Right / Left brain bellcurve distribution

That is, as we travel to either extreme of stereotypical ‘left’ or ‘right’ brained activities, my interest generally dwindles as time spent exclusively on those activities increases. I become most passionate (take the y axis to be ‘excitement’, if you will) with activities that require employing thought processes typical to both seemingly polar mindsets, and what I busied myself with during high school reflected this.

By definition this goes against the grain of specialization. In balancing down the middle, I was refuting the general post-secondary ethos of ‘you shall become an expert in building bridges’ or ‘you shall become an expert in creative writing’. Granted, I surely understand that near every profession requires the capacity to be creative and logical at some level, though the focus is almost always slanted to one or the other.

Koslow spoke to this effect, insisting that the structure of higher education was entirely unconducive to serial innovation. He described higher education as a hole you start digging with your undergraduate degree, and continue to dig deeper with your masters – digging deeper still with your PhD – until finally, one day (if you’re exceptionally good), you dig the hole a little deeper than anyone else and you’re the world’s foremost expert in something. Something very small. This is all fine, it is the process by which much of knowledge we consider now consider ‘boilerplate’ that contributed to our standard of living eventually came to be. However, it hardly allows one to think across boundaries and disciplines – which, when you think of, is somewhat fundamental to innovation.

I define innovation to be the creative correlation of previously unrelated ideas. In this case, it somewhat helps to have a lot of unrelated ideas to draw from.

Koslow went on to speak of Horizontal Knowledge – that instead of resolute knowledge of one hole, a framework knowledge of a thousand holes is better suited to spontaneous innovation and the era we live in. In the not too distant past, should one not be able to recall offhand critical information specific to one’s field, he or she might spend a week in the library hunting down the required piece of missing information. Efficiency dictated memorization king. Today, with quality information (such as scientific journals and references) is instantly available and searchable, we are far better suited to concentrate on the supporting framework and infrastructure of understanding and intuition than mere information.

In the context of Entrepreneurship, horizontal knowledge is especially important. Due to the multifaceted and ambiguous nature of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurs need to be well versed and capable – at the very lest competent – in a wide and varying set of often hard to define skills and abilities.

I now had an established concept under which to gather my thoughts on education and learning. My theories was in some way validated – I had a basis to build from.

For three continuous hours after his keynote ended, a fluctuating group of about 20 people continued to talk with Evan as he touched on his adventures in bringing down billion dollar companies, in contracting himself to companies to ‘innovate on the spot’ and – what intrigued me most – in developing a system of extremely efficient learning with a college friend.

There is more to come. Far more to come.

 

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