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From Beer to Caffeine: The Birth of Innovation

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COFFEE
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Three hundred years ago, during the Age of Enlightenment, the coffee house became the center of innovation.

Back then, most people went from drinking beer to consuming coffee (i.e. from being tipsy to being wired) and ideas started exploding.

The details of this story are important (and fun) one for anyone passionate about innovation.

I wrote about this very phenomenon in Abundance, and offer the excerpt below.

Read, enjoy and pass it on to all the coffee-lovers (and innovators) in your life.

Beginning of Abundance Excerpt: The World is My Coffee Shop

In his excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson explores the impact of coffeehouses on the Enlightenment culture of the 18th century. "It's no accident," he says, "that the age of reason accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages." There are two main drivers at work here. The first is that before the discovery of coffee, much of the world was intoxicated much of the day. This was mostly a health issue. Water was too polluted to drink, so beer was the beverage of choice. In his New Yorker essay "Java Man," Malcolm Gladwell explains it this way: "Until the 18th century, it must be remembered, many Westerners drank beer almost continuously, even beginning their day with something called "beer soup." Now they begin each day with a strong cup of coffee. One way to explain the industrial revolution is as the inevitable consequence of a world where people suddenly preferred being jittery to being drunk."

But equally important to the Enlightenment was the coffeehouse as a hub for information sharing. These new establishments drew people from all walks of life. Suddenly the rabble could party alongside the royals, and this allowed all sorts of novel notions to begin to meet and mingle and, as Matt Ridley says, "have sex." In his book London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite explains it this way:

The London coffee-houses provided a gathering place where, for a penny admission charge, any man who was reasonably dressed could smoke his long, clay pipe, sip a dish of coffee, read the newsletters of the day, or enter into conversation with other patrons. At the period when journalism was in its infancy and the postal system was unorganized and irregular, the coffee-house provided a center of communication for news and information... Naturally, this dissemination of news led to the dissemination of ideas, and the coffee-house served as a forum for their discussion.

But researchers in recent years have recognized that the coffee shop phenomenon is actually just a mirror of what occurs within cities. Two-thirds of all growth takes place in cities because, by simple fact of population density, our urban spaces are perfect innovation labs. The modern metropolis is jam-packed. People are living atop one another; their ideas are as well. So notions bump into hunches bump into offhanded comments bump into concrete theories bump into absolute madness, and the results pave the way forward. And the more complicated, multilingual, multicultural, wildly diverse the city, the greater its output of new ideas. "What drives a city's innovation engine, then -- and thus its wealth engine -- is its multitude of differences," says Stewart Brand. In fact, Santa Fe Institute, physicist Geoffrey West found that when a city's population doubles, there is a 15 percent increase in income, wealth, and innovation. (He measured innovation by counting the number of new patents.)

But just as the coffeehouse is a pale comparison to the city; the city is a pale comparison to the World Wide Web. The net is allowing us to turn ourselves into a giant, collective meta-intelligence. And this meta-intelligence continues to grow as more and more people come online. Think about this for a moment: by 2020, nearly three billion people will be added to the Internet's community. That's three billion new minds about to join the global brain. The world is going to gain access to intelligence, wisdom, creativity, insight, and experiences that have, until very recently, been permanently out of reach.

The upside of this surge is immeasurable. Never before in history has the global marketplace touched so many consumers and provided access to so many producers. The opportunities for collaborative thinking are also growing exponentially, and since progress is cumulative, the resulting innovations are going to grow exponentially as well. For the first time ever, the rising billion will have the remarkable power to identify, solve, and implement their own abundance solutions. And thanks to the net, those solutions aren't going to stay balkanized in the developing world.

Perhaps most importantly, the developing world is the perfect incubator for the technologies that are the keys to sustainable growth. "Indeed," writes Stuart Hart, "new technologies -- including renewable energy, distributed generation, biomaterials, point-of-use water purification, wireless information technologies, sustainable agriculture, and nanotechnology -- could hold the keys to addressing environmental challenges from the top to the base of the economic pyramid."

However, he adds, "Because green technologies are frequently 'disruptive' in character (that is, they threaten incumbents in existing markets), the BoP may be the most appropriate socioeconomic segment upon which to focus initial commercialization attention... If such a strategy were widely embraced, the developing economies of the world become the breeding ground for tomorrow's sustainable industries and companies, with the benefits -- both economic and environmental -- ultimately "trickling up" to the wealthy at the top of the pyramid."

Thus this influx of intellect from the rising billion may turn out to be the saving grace of the entire planet. Please, please, please, let the bootstrapping begin.

End of Abundance excerpt.

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