There are not too many illustrative and inspiring books in the market about serendipity, so I was delighted, when I heard about Sebastian Olma’s book initiative few months ago. His book “The Serendipity Machine” was published recently and received a warm response in the market. I had the opportunity to interview Sebastian this week and I am pleased to share some of his thoughts concerning his book and serendipity related issues in this interview.
Ilkka: I have noticed that your new book Serendipity Machine has received an enthusiastic welcome, are you surprised of this kind of response?
Sebastian: Yes, I am surprised indeed. Particularly because it is a book talking about one particular business model. Of course, my reason for writing this book was that in my opinion this business model intelligently connects the old and the new world of business, the flows of money capital and social capital and so on. Nonetheless, I didn’t expect this little book would generate that amount of interest really.
Ilkka: What do you think is behind that kind of interest?
Sebastian: I think this has to do with two things.
First, on the surface, there is the notion of serendipity that is suddenly popping up everywhere. You’ve got 20% serendipity time in big corporates now, in the UK Nesta is institutionalizing Serendipity Coffee Breaks, the Design Thinking community hardly speaks about anything but serendipity anymore. So with a title like The Serendipity Machine, you are putting yourself right on top of the wave I suppose. Things like that just happen, you can’t really plan something like this. I didn’t give the book its title for PR reasons.
Which brings me to what I believe to be the second reason for its success. It has to do with the fact that the book is very practical. Usually, books on business innovation tend to be full of check lists and rules based on abstract theory, backed up often by anecdotal evidence. In The Serendipity Machine things are different. Yes, there is a little bit of theory as well but it is connected to one concrete example of a company that really had the guts to do things differently. To disrupt itself. To reinvent its business not only for reasons of its own revenue stream but also to answer a societal need. There are quite a few entrepreneurial activists out there at the moment trying to do something similar and I suppose they appreciate seeing someone succeeding in it. So most of the more entrepreneurial/activist crowds were as kind as to forgive my rather uncritical enthusiasm for this model because like me, they like to celebrate the evolution of economic practice.
There has also been a fair share of critique as to the lack of critical perspective and so on; mainly from the so-called experts. Partly this is justified and simply due to the nature of the book. Actually, I had the idea that the serendipity machine as business model is in itself quite a powerful critique of the insufficient ways in which value creation is structured today. However, I am also working on two books at the moment, one – together with Geert Lovink – about the relation of serendipity and creativity in more general terms. I think this one will provide a great format for more critical approaches.
Ilkka: What was the core reason for you to write the book, how was it related to Seats2Meet?
Sebastian: I have been fascinated by the coworking movement since its very inception. In spite of all the ambivalence involved in the process of people becoming entrepreneurs, I thought the attempt to replace command and control structures by social networks was simply fascinating. Corporate office centres like Regus have been trying to jump on the coworking bandwagon, although of course not very successfully. There simply is a chasm between offering flexible desks for rent and cocreating a mesh of mutual support among all sorts of entrepreneurs. With regard to the latter, corporates tend to be unable to deliver, simply because you just can’t deliver things like that.
So when I first encountered S2M, I thought it was a sham as well. Only bit by bit did I discover that they were actually serious about coworking, so serious in fact that they didn’t even bother to ask money for their desks but accepted social capital as currency instead. This really blew my mind. Of course you can understand this in terms of a simple freemium model etc. but the point is that getting space in exchange for social capital is helping lots of people to become entrepreneurs, to stand on their own feet economically. Isn’t is fascinating to see a company actually going against the received business ‘wisdom’ and reinventing their business in a timely fashion by linking the logic of profit to the logic of social capital?
So for me, The Serendipity Machine marks an important step in our evolution toward an economic model that is able to deal with today’s crucial resources of value creation – human knowledge and creativity – in a much more sustainable and also effective way. And that’s basically why I wanted to write this book.
Ilkka: Do we need clear definitions for serendipity?
Sebastian: As you know, Horace Walpole defined serendipity in the 1750s in terms of the ancient tale of the three princes of Serendip. Lots of things are happening in the tale and lots of things have happened to serendipity since Walpole’s “discovery”. One thing is clear, the history of the notion of serendipity has been one of constantly shifting meaning. Of course, the OED defines it as “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” The vernacular refers to “happy accidents,” “pleasant surprises,” “unexpected discoveries.” In the book I am defining it more in terms of unexpected encounters that add value to someone’s professional activities.
I think we have to be careful here to not be too puritan about the definition of serendipity as this would run counter to the spirit of the notion itself. As I said, the history of serendipity has been rather tumultuous and I think its recent renaissance turns the notion itself into a great example of human creativity. Serendipity expresses something extremely relevant to our current social and economic state of development. This, again, is what my next book is going to be about, but the gist of it, I think, is that human knowledge and creativity as today’s crucial sources of value creation are inherently social. What I mean by this is that they can not belong to an individual or an organization.
They are intrinsically social in so far as they emerge out of “unexpected encounters,” clashes of fragments of ideas, situations, localities, moods, objects, contradictions and so on. Prior to the encounter, they only have a virtual existence. Complexity theory in this context talks about emergence. Serendipity marks the moment in which virtually possible relations become relations that are actually happening. Only in the encounter something new, creative and/or valuable manifests. Once the serendipity has happened, once a new phenomenon has materialized, it can also be owned. The process that leads there, however, can never be owned. It really belongs to everyone and no one simultaneously.
Serendipity is a notion that constantly points to this layer of virtual relations, reminding us of the social potential around us. I think this is why people have come to love the notion.
Ilkka: And what do think about the criticism regarding the title of the book. In fact , even I thought when I first heard about your book, that the name could have been somewhat better? Some people don’t like serendipity machines/engines, they feel that these notions are kind of relicts from industrial age.
Sebastian: I think to a degree you are right pointing to the ambivalence of the notion of the ‘machine.’ It is a term that enters popular imagination with the connotation of industrialism. In this sense, a machine is an apparatus that enslaves human beings, turning them into the proverbial cogs in the machine. Obviously, this is exactly what Serendipity Machines try to overcome. Let’s take the example of coworking spaces again: they don’t use technology to enslave people – as say, the neofordist call-centres or Amazon’s warehouses do – but they use technology to facilitate entrepreneurial sovereignty.
Now, the reason why I am talking about a Serendipity Machine has to do with a different understanding of the term. To begin with, the notion of the machine was not invented during the industrial revolution (as serendipity, funnily enough actually was) but has its roots in the Greek makhana or mekhane denoting a tool consisting of one or more parts that is capable of using energy to achieve a particular goal. Of course in the industrial era the notion of the machine acquired an industrial connotation. Just like everything else. However, in contemporary philosophy we find a notion of the machines that harks back to the original meaning of the term. The influential work of Gilles Deleuze for instance presents us with all sorts of machines: social machines, technological machines, aesthetic machines, biological machines, etc. A machine, or as philosophers like Deleuze also call it, an assemblage, describes the particular way in which elements (ideas, people, technologies, affects, geographies) connect in order to form a particular structure. This structure might for instance be an industrial production system. It might also be a particular cultural institution. Or simply a specific way of life. What is useful about this notion of the machine is that it points again to the virtual dimension mentioned above: it addresses the way a multiplicity of phenomena intersect in order to structure an actual regime of practice. You could perhaps image this in terms of a transversal network of all kinds of practices, believes, technologies and so on upon which a given social practice is built. A serendipity machine would be a network (assemblage) structuring practice in terms of serendipity.
Ilkka: I think it’s very interesting how you describe ”potlatch”, could you tell how you came to this conclusion, to compare serendipitous encounters to that ancient wisdom?
Sebastian: A potlatch is a ceremonial feast that has been found to be an integral part of many archaic economies. The word comes from a native North American dialect term meaning “to give away” or “a gift.” Anthropologists have long been fascinated with the potlatch, because it is the cornerstone of an economic system in which acts of exchange do not take place in a space abstracted from personal relations. In our modern economies, a transaction is sealed by paying a price, thus alienating the previous owner from the good or service. Paying the price, one might say, cuts off the previous owner’s bond with the object of exchange and also prevents the emergence of any social bond between the two parties. The potlatch, in contradistinction, is a form of exchange designed to establish a social bond between the parties engaging in the exchange. The gift is never alienated from the giver. Rather, he or she enters into a relationship of asynchronous reciprocity with the receiver of the gift. The exchange establishes a strong social bond between the parties involved in the gift exchange, obligating the receiver to repay his or her gift debt. However, the reciprocity is asynchronous, meaning that when and how repayment takes place is left to the will and capabilities of the receiver.
When I was at Goldsmith in London doing my PhD in the early years of the new millennium, we were talking a lot about these kinds of economies and their potential in terms of our economic future. Mind you, this was just before the crisis kicked in which has of course led to some kind of a renaissance of this “ancient wisdom,” as you put it in your question. I think David Graeber, who according to Der Spiegel, Financial Times etc. has written one of the most important books on the financial crisis, talks about gift economies a lot in Debt: the first 5000 years. The challenge of course is to use this historical knowledge in order to create the corresponding wisdom of our time and, even more importantly, an appropriate practice.
Ilkka: Where do you see the next focus area in serendipity research will be? And in what kind of applications – virtual/physical environments or facilitation methodologies – you could see serendipity getting momentum?
Sebastian: As you know, there has been quite a bit of buzz around the notion of serendipity with regard to the innovation policies of companies such as Google, 3M, LinkedIn with their famous 20 percent rules. NESTA, the official innovation institute of the UK government has just introduced what they call randomized coffee breaks which they emphatically understand in terms of institutionalizing serendipity.
All this is great. I think what it comes down to is giving professional the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the value creation inside and around an organization. Technology can and should be used to facilitate this. The French tech-philosopher Bernard Stiegler talks about this in terms of an “economy of contribution.” This is exactly what I mean. Today, what we are seeing that the technological potential we have at our hands is totally underused.
I get really depressed when I hear people in the social innovation/social capital scene talking about how technology is leading the way into a better future. This is absolute nonsense. Take the field of ICT. The main thing we are using innovation in ICT for at the moment is to create evermore channels of consumption. We can now even turn people’s attention straight into economic value. What we have to understand is that there are much more important and sustainable modes of application of technology. We need to use it in order to invent new practices – indeed: new machines – of contribution.
The example I am giving in the book is that of “the third space.” The third space evolves Ray Oldenburg’s idea of the third place (a place that is neither home nor office) by enhancing it through the power of digital technology. By merging the real and the virtual, you end up somewhere in between Joe Pine and Henri Lefebvre: in the third space that facilitates serendipity. I know this sounds paradoxical. However, we will have to adopt paradoxical practices in order to get out of the current crisis. Due to the nature of human knowledge and creativity that I sketched above, technologies supporting serendipitous encounters will have to play a crucial role in this.
Ilkka: How can we avoid serendipity turning into a buzzword?
Sebastian: To be honest, I don’t think this is possible. We had this discussion some ten, fifteen years ago with regard to Richard Florida’s notion of the “creative class.” The question back then was: How can you save ‘creativity’ from becoming an empty policy and/or management buzz word. Of course, it proved to be an impossible task. I think the only way of countering such a development is by doing whatever you possibly can to spread a practice that fills a notion like serendipity with sensible meaning. That, I think, should be our program!
Ilkka: Thanks Sebastian, it was a pleasure talking to you!
Now I am already waiting curiously for his new book as well. You can download the copy of “The Serendipity Machine” here. And please feel free also to comment these thoughts, serendipity is an inspiring phenomenon with many interpretations and it would be great to discuss your ideas and response on this forum.