“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” —George Bernard Shaw

One of the definitions of art is “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice.” This is an interesting juxtaposition to something so intuitively creative and seemingly serendipitous. But there’s a truth to it. To create something truly remarkable and unique requires both the incredible luck of all the right ingredients at the right place and time, as well as continuous practice to execute when inspiration strikes.

Much ado about nothing?

In Silicon Valley, people don’t ponder art as much as they do innovation. Yet, while everybody talks about innovation, nobody has really defined, let alone agreed on what it really means.

The word itself reflects change, the introduction of something new, a transformation, a revolution even, certainly a breakthrough idea. But in a constant flux of new ideas and new products, what remains truly innovative?

What turns an idea into an innovation, rather than yet another great idea? Is innovation always inherently novel, or is it simply a new way of looking at the same problem? Are new products true innovation, or are they merely an iteration of an innovative concept?

There’s much talk about innovation, especially in technology, and it is far too easy to focus on the what, rather than the why and how.

At swissnex San Francisco, a think space, we derive added value by looking at innovation and translating it for our clients and the public. This means we’re always curious. We’re curious as to what is out there, and why it matters. Which is why, earlier this month, we set out to conduct a thought experiment.

“What is innovation?”  we pondered. “ What does it mean? And how does it actually happen?” Our hypothesis, simply, was that innovation is an art.

Art of Innovation Dinner at Pier 17

First, let’s prototype!

We invited some of the brightest and boldest people we know in the San Francisco Bay Area to join a group of Swiss peers over good food and wine, and coaxed out of them strong opinions, fleeting thoughts, fully formed solutions to problems, honest requests for answers, thought-provoking arguments and controversial counter points, and always more questions.

We imprinted this cornucopia of information—captured through Twitter with the hashtag #swisspier—literally and figuratively on the blank canvas that forms the expansive, raw space of our future home at Pier 17, and together contemplated the results.

Beautifully curated by our partner Quid, we saw that beyond the often empty stereotypes of novelty and rapid change, at the heart of innovation lie the more intrinsic values of collaboration, connecting people, creating open spaces, and sharing ideas.

So maybe our hypothesis is correct and there really is an art to innovation. There’s an intuition to knowing the right ingredients, and a practice to combining them in a way that brings out the best.

There’s also an art to letting go and running wild, and a hard-won discipline to knowing what tools and rules to provide to gently create magic rather than disaster. It’s incredibly simple yet unbelievably hard.


Innovation happens at the edge

That’s one of the reasons why the world has been looking to emulate Silicon Valley for many decades. Something serendipitous happens here. And whether it’s the ideal place and conditions that attract brilliant minds, or brilliant minds that create the right conditions might in fact be completely irrelevant. Genius ideas cannot exist or persist in a vacuum, and state-of-the art infrastructure does not in itself produce genius.

The right ideas at the right time and place are perhaps a question of elusive luck. But by collaborating, sharing, being open, and continuously prototyping, we practice the very particular skill of knowing how to execute when faced with such luck.

We got a little lucky on the evening of our Art of Innovation experiment.  A few excellent ideas from brilliant people planted seeds on our blank canvas. We’ve also been practicing this at swissnex San Francisco for more than 10 years.

We connect people and connect ideas, we trace their success and watch seeds grow into large trees and lush gardens. We share our discoveries and we listen to feedback. We prototype and adapt. We care about the why and how.

But to connect in a meaningful way, to transform, we really have to bring our attention back to a culture of collaboration and an open space that encourages sharing. Because innovation often happens where we least expect it. And so, with the art of innovation in mind, we have been putting a lot of thought into our new home at Pier 17.

Pier 17 and Exploratorium at night

The importance of an interdisciplinary hub

How do we create a transparent, open space that generously lets ideas flow, but also provides a safe space for them to grow; a space that is so interdisciplinary as to take the best from each contributor, yet equally relevant and enriching to all; a space that is both a greenhouse that incubates new possibilities, and a public platform for education and outreach?

We’ve made lists of what we’re really good at, and lists of what is really important to our clients and stakeholders. We’ve also made lists of all the things we’d like to do if we had a blank canvas. And we’re pretty excited about what will be a Swiss Innovation Pier in the making here in San Francisco, if we just keep practicing at creating serendipity.

A dedicated exhibition and gallery space will give us an even bigger and more visible platform to help showcase and connect the incredibly diverse talent that we work with on a daily basis in academia, art, science, and technology.

A multifunctional coworking space, incubator, and creative thinking lab will provide a physical and virtual open space for our partners and you to collaborate, prototype, and innovate. And we’ve gotten pretty artful with finding the right partners, too.

When we move to Pier 17 it will be together with local and Swiss collaborators. In addition to Nestle’s Digital Innovation Outpost, we’ve also invited the University of Geneva and ECAL, one of the world’s top ten art and design universities, to share our space. Beyond existing core partners such as the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia and the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation, we are forging new partnerships with industry pioneers that have the potential to disrupt entire ecosystems, such as Avaloq.

Start sharing

Our vision for Pier 17 is for the space to truly encapsulate our mission of connecting the dots. The Innovation Pier will be a premier port of entry for new ideas, people, and products between the San Francisco Bay Area and Switzerland, two regions with so much in common and so much to share. A place where the art of innovation can be practiced so that we may enable and spark you, perhaps, to truly innovate.

In the spirit of sharing, we invite you to browse the best ideas and suggestions for a Swiss Innovation Pier in the making by searching under the #swisspier hashtag. Tweet your own inspirations for a collaborative, open space at the pier there, too, and mention @swissnexSF. The best ideas will be in the running to receive funding and be prototyped in our new home in 2016. Join our open space!


Image of Pier 17 and the Exploratorium at night courtesy of EHDD, photo by Bruce Damonte.