Facilitating Serendipity

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar given by a young man from UCL titled “Designing to Encourage Serendipity – an Oxymoron?”. He wanted to facilitate, through interaction design, the conditions for serendipity to take place. What a strange idea. Or is it?

Serendipity is considered a ‘happy accident’. A fortunate discovery that you did not expect to make. I’m rather fond of serendipity. Many of what I consider the best things that have happened in my life, I put down to serendipity. Meeting my husband is one. My current job is another. Life is full of these moments.

The idea of artificially creating the conditions for it however, seems impossible. How do you know which conditions, events or actions will lead to a happy accident? If I think about the things that I attribute to serendipity there are few common factors. The big one they do all have in common is that I was open to the opportunities that arose unexpectedly.

Creativity is like that. The connections we make when trying to creatively solve a problem is often serendipitous. A combination of several ideas coming together to form a new and surprising idea. We’re only able to make these connections, if we’re open to the potential outcomes. We can facilitate the conditions for which creativity can happen. So perhaps the idea that we can facilitate serendipitous outcomes might not be quite so farfetched after all?

What’s your take on it?

Author: Kristine Pitts

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About Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice
The Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice is an interdisciplinary research centre in the Cass Business School, City University London. http://www.cass.city.ac.uk/research-and-faculty/centres/creativity

5 Responses to Facilitating Serendipity

  1. I don’t myself like the term “happy accident” – why knows whether something will only have happy outcomes, and accident reminds me too much of car crashes.

    But it is surely possible to enhance the conditions for serendipity?

    A key idea in innovation is “weak ties” – going out of one’s department or discipline positively to seek out areas of potential. This has a cost, both in effort and in opportunities forgone closer to home, which then inhibits many people from pursuing weak ties.

    One important quality in serendipity is curiosity, asking questions or going to places that the less-curious do not address. I am convinced not that we can teach curiosity, but we can certainly encourage it rather than ignore or suppress it.

    Clive Holtham

    • Morgan says:

      I agree with you. Accident does have potential to turn out badly.

      Your point on curiosity is important when considering this topic. I think that a persons ability to explore areas they are curious about increases serendipity and increasingly, loose ties are becoming easier to maintain with the adoption and consumerisation of tech.

      On Kristine’s last point…I’m not sure it is being “open to the outcomes” that is the secret sauce. Being wiling to contribute openly without an expectation of the outcome might be a different way of thinking about it.

      There is some truth in the old adage that “you make your own luck”.

  2. Hi Clive,

    You make a very good point about curiosity. Networking with people outside the discipline I work in has been a great way of finding unexpected connections and opportunities.

    I agree that accident might not be the best term. The serendipitous outcome might be unexpected, but usually there was some deliberate actions that preceded it, e.g. networking.

    Kristine

  3. My favourite example of the serendipitous environment is in building design – somewhere like Pixar where the building was designed in a way that meant techies, artists, accountants and everyone else were more likely to bump into each other. Common space (physical or virtual) breeds interaction, interaction breeds ideas and collaboration.

    Simon

  4. I think you have to a positive outlook to recognize a serendipitous event. Great things happen to people all of the time, and many don’t even know it. You do have to open yourself to new possibilities, and put yourself in the position to recognize when it happens.

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