This guest blog will open a series of invited articles, which will cover serendipity related issues from various perspectives. I met with Stephann few weeks ago in London and I was really happy to discover that some serious academic research is conducted in the area of serendipity. I sincerely respect Stephann’s passion in serendipity and he has put a lot of effort in understanding the phenomena. We will publish some of the real serendipity cases collected by Stephann later on in the section Serendipity in Practise, you will find them titled “Stephann’s serendipity stories”.
Telling serendipity stories
I’m Dr. Stephann Makri from University College London Interaction Centre and I am fascinated by serendipity. So much so that I have spent the last 2 years interviewing people to gain a rich understanding of the phenomenon, its importance in our lives and whether and how we might be able to design interactive systems based on this understanding. I have found that serendipity is more than just a ‘happy accident’ (a popular understanding of the term) – it’s when unexpected circumstances and an insightful ‘aha’ moment lead to a valuable outcome.
Over the past 2 years, I have asked 39 interdisciplinary researchers and creative professionals to tell me their memorable examples of serendipity, either from their work or everyday lives. The ‘serendipity stories’ they told me included a Digital Humanities student being offered an internship at a journalism lab because someone from the lab noticed his enthusiastic journalism-related Tweets on Twitter, an experimental chef getting the idea create a sea-salt-cured mackerel dish when watching his daughter collect stones on the beach and an Architecture student watching a BBC documentary on honey bees and getting the idea of using the hexagonal shape of honeycomb to create a novel building design. I have had several of these stories illustrated and narrated and they are viewable on my YouTube channel . In this 3 part guest blog series, I will be giving you an overview of the findings of my serendipity research so far (this month’s blog article) and then telling you 2 of my own ‘serendipity stories’ from my academic research and from every day life (the next 2 articles).
Getting the idea of using the hexagonal shape of honeycomb to design a novel building from a BBC documentary. Illustrated by Johanna Basford.
I found that the researchers and creative professionals’ serendipity stories all involved 3 important elements: 1) unexpected circumstances, 2) an insightful ‘aha’ moment and 3) a valuable, unanticipated outcome. Their serendipitous experiences were important for the interviewees as they not only enhanced their knowledge, but were also time-saving – they propelled the interviewees forwards in their work or life at a faster pace than they would have travelled otherwise.
The 3 important elements of serendipity: unexpected circumstances, an insightful ‘aha’ connection and a valuable unanticipated outcome.
But what can we do with these findings? Well we can use them to reason about and reflect on our potentially serendipitous experiences by asking ourselves 3 questions: 1) How unexpected was the experience? 2) How much insight was involved? 3) How valuable was or do you expect the experience to be? I suggest that reasoning about and reflecting on potentially serendipitous experiences might make you more ‘prepared’ for recognising serendipity when it happens to you and more willing to act on it – by taking actions aimed at ensuring something valuable comes from it.
This research is being carried out as part of a £1.82m UK Research Council Funded Project called SerenA: Chance Encounters in the Space of Ideas (see www.serena.ac.uk). In this project, we are designing a ‘serendipitous’ semantic notebook Android app that aims to create unexpected and valuable connections between people, information and ideas. Think of it as a smart notebook – that knows that you follow a ‘serendipity management’ approach and are at a conference in Helsinki and suggests that you should meet someone else at the conference who follows a similar approach that you had never heard of. It is a notebook that doesn’t just give you Amazon-style recommendations (that you could meet someone else at the conference who follows the ‘serendipity management approach’), but helps you to discover people, places, information and ideas that you needed to know about, but didn’t realise you needed to know about. Rather than ‘engineering’ serendipity, our app creates opportunities for people to make connections that they might perceive to be unexpected and valuable.
The findings of my research into understanding serendipity have been featured in BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Digital Human’ series (the episode on ‘Chance’ is downloadable from www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/dh). They have also been published as 2 companion articles in the Journal of Documentation called ‘Coming across Information Serendiptiously Parts 1 and 2’ (see discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1309396 and discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1341009). So please do follow the links if you’d like to read/hear more about my research. I’d also be delighted to answer any questions or address any comments about my research, so don’t hesitate to post some if you’re curious about anything.