Article by Greg Lindsay
Wired (UK)  |  October 2013

How to Build a Serendipity Engine

‘My phone knows your CV, but not if I should know you.’

image

(This article was taken from the November 2013 issue of Wired [UK] magazine.)

Silicon Valley’s latest management fad is to not manage. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” said Yahoo! when it revoked working from home. Marissa Mayer, ex-Google, knew that hits such as Gmail and Street View were the product of engineers meeting serendipitously over lunch.

Google’s new campus is designed to encourage “casual collisions” at its rooftop cafés, and Facebook has hired Frank Gehry to build “the perfect engineering space: one giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together,” Mark Zuckerberg explained.

Study after study has demonstrated the power of proximity when it comes to birthing ideas, and network theorists have shown how bridging “structural holes” between teams and disciplines consistently leads to better and more innovations. What’s ironic is how the world’s largest search companies and social network appear to have no better ideas of how to plug these holes than to toss everyone into a room with an espresso machine.

Google is obsessed with “engineering serendipity”, combining users’ search history, location and context to answer questions before they’re asked. What would it take to build a social serendipity engine—one that could identify who’s nearby, mine your hidden contexts and relationships and make the necessary introductions? After all, not everyone drinks coffee.

The first step is finding people, which location-based dating services such as OKCupid and Grindr manage well. They’ve been joined by “social discovery” apps such as Sonar and Circle, which link users’ networks to their smartphone’s GPS.

“Ten years from now, you will look at your phone or through Google Glass, and know everyone in the room,” says SocialRadar founder Michael Chasen. “I haven’t met anyone who disagrees with that.”

The next piece is harder. It’s not enough to know who’s in the room—you also need to care. Facebook “likes” aren’t accurate predictors of a match. What’s missing is context—why I want to meet this person now. Grindr works because its consideration is binary. Any serendipity engine with higher aspirations must grasp deeper motivations than social media supplies.

One solution is to build rich profiles manually. That’s the tack taken by Relationship Science, which maps potential connections between 2.3 million members of the 1 percent. Customers can trace the shortest path to their quarry via colleagues, corporate boards and alma maters, each link graded into strong, medium and weak ties—captions Glass might someday flash over their faces.

Another approach is to collect data using sensors. An MIT Media Lab spin-off, Sociometric Solutions, equips office workers with “sociometric badges” to measure movement, speech and conversational partners, using the results to plot maps of organisations. Its findings suggest Yahoo! should invest in large cafeteria tables: workers who eat at tables for 12 are more productive than those at tables for four.

The last step is the trickiest: given enough context about the strangers headed towards you, can an algorithm crunch enough data in time to spot connections? Another startup, Ayasdi, does that by rendering every big data set as a network map, revealing hidden connections that CEO Gurjeet Singh labels “digital serendipity”.

If yoked together, these approaches could help fill in the blank spaces on the org chart where work actually happens and new ideas are spawned. Although luring them into the same room with an espresso machine would probably speed things up a bit.

About Greg Lindsay

» Folllow me on Twitter.
» Friend me on Facebook.
» Email me.
» See upcoming events.

image
Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative  — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.

He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

» More about Greg Lindsay

Articles by Greg Lindsay

Medium  |  May 1, 2017

The Engine Room

Fast Company  |  January 19, 2017

The Collaboration Software That’s Rejuvenating The Young Global Leaders Of Davos

The Guardian  |  January 13, 2017

What If Uber Kills Public Transport Instead of Cars

Backchannel  |  January 4, 2017

The Office of the Future Is…an Office

New Cities Foundation  |  October 2016

Now Arriving: A Connected Mobility Roadmap for Public Transport

Inc.  |  October 2016

Why Every Business Should Start in a Co-Working Space

Popular Mechanics  |  May 11, 2016

Can the World’s Worst Traffic Problem Be Solved?

The New Republic  |  January/February 2016

Hacking The City

Fast Company  |  September 22, 2015

We Spent Two Weeks Wearing Employee Trackers: Here’s What We Learned

Fast Company  |  September 21, 2015

HR Meets Data: How Your Boss Will Monitor You To Create The Quantified Workplace

Inc.  |  March 2015

Which Contacts Should You Keep in Touch With? Let This Software Tell You

Inc.  |  March 2015

5 Global Cities of the Future

Global Solution Networks  |  December 2014

Cities on the Move

Medium  |  November 2014

Engineering Serendipity

New York University  |  October 2014

Sin City vs. SimCity

Harvard Business Review  |  October 2014

Workspaces That Move People

Inc.  |  April 2014

The Network Effect

Atlantic Cities  |  March 2014

How Las Vegas (Of All Places) May Be About to Reinvent Car Ownership

Wired (UK)  |  October 2013

How to Build a Serendipity Engine

Next American City  |  August 2013

IBM’s Department of Education

» See all articles

Blog

June 26, 2017

URBAN-X: Can These Startups Change the Way We Live in Cities?

June 10, 2017

Intel and the “Passenger Economy”

June 10, 2017

The Spring Speaking Season

June 07, 2017

Visiting No. 10.

» More blog posts