This is the second in a short series of posts, as I digest the talks from The Innovation Edge 08. Yesterday covered Gordon Brown (I’m enjoying the comments). Today is focused on Jonathan Freedland’s interview with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. For those that may have temporarily forgotten, Sir Tim is broadly viewed as the inventor of the World Wide Web. There was a minor distraction as Tim’s earpiece insisted on stealing the show by constantly falling out, and there is a little earth-loop hum in the audio, but the content is gripping, you can watch the talk for yourself. (and this is the write up on the NESTA blog)

My first encounter with Sir Tim’s work was back in 1990. I was at Kent University at the time, and got involved in the trial of something called “Hypertext”. Quite frankly, I didn’t get it. A page of text where you could click on a word and another page of text would come up. What was anyone going to do with something like that? I took the pay and went back to circuit boards and DJing at the college radio station. Two years later I was back working on Internet technologies. The experience has made me much more thoughtful when I encounter new technologies!

As Sir Tim recounted the foundations of the web, it was curious how accidental and casual the whole thing sounded. The project was a ‘back-room’ effort, carried out during a lull in the work on the Cern accelerator. As Tim put it, giving staff a long leash, giving them space, is where innovation comes from. It brought to mind Google’s 20% time. You could hear the pens of the managing directors in the audience scribbling furiously.

The point of innovation is that you don’t know the end product before you start, sometimes you don’t even know the problem. It is a big risk, and that makes it tricky for a traditional management mindset. The web (or rather hypertext) was driven by the challenge of dealing with lots of documents and having to get others up to speed on them quickly. Necessity is the mother of Invention, which is a theme that came back later during the conference.

He described blogs as a social machine, which is an interesting metaphor – I guess we are still cogs in a machine, even in the world of social media. I have seen what this social machine can create form the huge diversity that it brings together. For me, two stand out quotes from the talk:

“The people doing the really interesting things tended to fall between two stools”

“The web really has to be thought of not as a system of connections between computers, or even as links between web pages, but really as humanity connected.”

The first made me think of the Medici effect, and is the reason for The Web Science Initiative, which sounds very interesting. The second was the final take away for me: The future of the web, and of innovation, is in individuals working in collaboration. There again, that is how all the greatest achievements have come about.