THE BLOG
01/23/2015 06:16 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

Could Coffee Be an Apt Symbol for Innovation?

If you are a coffee drinker, lover or aficionado, you likely would enjoy this article dedicated to you. For others, here is a perspective.

On a recent rainy morning, I was looking out of the window accompanied by my warm tumbler -- filled with freshly brewed, percolated goodness -- specially customized concoction of south Indian filter coffee. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath to soak in the aroma. It brought back memories -- images of light up eyes of my parents, uncles and grandparents on both sides. For these restrained, well groomed folks, just the words, filter coffee, did the trick. I remember varied conversations with coffee in hand -- some just about coffee. I can vividly recall my uncle's attention to detail -- I learnt from him that air in the froth enters the taste equation when it comes to coffee.

In today's connected world where kids may text each other even when they are walking side by side, the age old charm of conversations over coffee still hold its relevance. Definitely the random run ins at the break room and the politics of office coffee pot is something many of us can relate to. Steve Jobs was obsessed with office design -- for him, serendipitous encounters over coffee was potent enough to trigger individual creativity and team collaboration. Great innovations are usually about exchange of ideas and rolling up the sleeves collaborations -- coffee is all pervasive in these settings.

If the light bulb embodies a eureka moment of a beautiful mind, can coffee symbolize the collective human mind and associated implementation of great ideas?

Making the case for Coffee as Innovation Icon

Could it matter economically? Have you ever wondered why a mermaid is on a Starbucks cup. It is an ode to the seafaring nautical history of coffee. Coffee trade makes wealth sharing possible -- between innovation hubs that are major consumers of coffee and many producing countries in the developing world. While Warren Buffet and Bill Gates bequeath a major part of their wealth for humanitarian causes, for the rest of us mortals, especially brand gurus who are also coffee lovers, positioning coffee with innovation could help propel the international cause.

Symbol of social giving: Coffee, on its own merit today, brings out the essence of giving that life is beyond a zero sum game. Caffè sospeso, is a Naples tradition where people pay for an extra coffee cup for less fortunate, future customers. Last August, an act of kindness at a Starbucks drive-thru in Florida inspired an 11-hour chain of paying-it-forward.

Coffee provides context: Human stories resonate with us. History provides us context. In the 1700/1800's- Coffee houses were the nerve centers propelling various cultural and political impacts like the French Revolution. In recent decades, Coffee continues to personify great thinking, great collaboration and a sense of community with few noted additions like Wi-Fi. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said it well about Starbucks stores, "We would rediscover the mystique and charm that had swirled around coffee through the centuries."

What the experts say? Steven Johnson, in his book, "Where good ideas come from?", talks about an ideal middle ground for fostering innovation -- something not too rigid like solids or too unstructured like gas , he aptly calls them liquid networks -- "hot beds for ideas, lots of eyes, different backgrounds, different interests jostling with each other bouncing off each other." Can coffee symbolize the liquid networks?

In Essence: Coffee as innovation icon?

A jolt of coffee is ingrained in our social milieu. 1.3 billion cups of coffee everyday -- roughly, one for every 5th person on earth! Jerry Seinfeld, renowned for his social observations, shared his thoughts about meeting someone over coffee "...seemed like a wonderful, compact, accessible and portable social interaction" leading to the genesis of his latest show -- Comedians in Cars getting Coffee.

In any case, we all can agree -- great ideas behind innovations could be individual light bulb moments or a confluence of serendipity and critical observation, or just structured thought through collaboration -- simply great conversations over coffee.

Can coffee, the great social lubricant for "liquid networks", be relevant as innovation icon? What are your thoughts?