Disruptive Thinking, 6 Innovative Microclimates, and Leadership for Strategic Change

by J. William DeMarco

Walking Montparnasse in Paris one Christmas–I caught the ghost of Hemingway sipping a cafe au lait at the Dôme. I was struck by all the great minds that had walked the streets of the Left Bank.  I recall having the same thoughts walking the streets of Florence Italy, eating Thai with the boys in Mountain View CA or sitting in the Pan Handle of Golden Gate Park…how or why did these areas attract so many great minds?

I’m a Californian born and raised…and a San Francisco Bay Area native, where the term microclimate describes the unique weather phenomena in the area. After reading Victor Hwang’s article  To replicate Silicon Valley’s success, focus on culture he uses the concept of rain forests to explain Silicon Valley’s success–I would offer microclimate as perhaps a more appropriate parallel when envisioning the innovation microcosm that occurs in a few very unique places and periods throughout history….

microclimate is a local atmospheric zone where the climate differs from the surrounding area. The term may refer to areas as small as a few square feet (for example a garden bed) or as large as many square miles. Microclimates exist, for example, near bodies of water which may cool the local atmosphere, or in heavily urban areas where brick, concrete, and asphalt absorb the sun’s energy, heat up, and reradiate that heat to the ambient air: the resulting urban heat island is a kind of microclimate.

{Interesting side note: San Francisco is a city with microclimates and submicroclimates. Due to the city’s varied topography and influence from the prevailing summer marine layer, weather conditions can vary by as much as 9°F (5°C) from block to block.The San Francisco Bay area can have a wide range of extremes in temperature. The area offers many varieties of climate within a few miles. In the Bay Area, for example, the average maximum temperature in July is about 64 °F (18 °C) at Half Moon Bay on the coast, 87 °F (31 °C) at Walnut Creek only 25 miles (40 km) inland, and 95 °F (35 °C) at Tracy, just 50 miles (80 km) inland.}

Disruptive thinking and innovation have collided with microclimates at certain inflection points in history.  When C3 (Crisis, Complexity, and Confusion) meet head on with disruptive thinkers inside these microclimates–combined with powerful personalities utilizing 3Cs (creative thinking, collaboration, and communication) these microclimates serve as a incubator–leading to shifts in very diverse areas with an incredible strategic impact.  preverbal petri dishes for the Medici Effect to grow.  

A fascinating phenomena, consider the microclimates of the European Renaissance, The American RevolutionThe “Lost Generation” in ParisThe Beat Poets in New York and San Francisco giving way to the San Francisco Renaissance in and around the Haight-Ashbury and finally Silicon Valley.
1) The European Renaissance of the 14th–17th centuries in Florence

The Renaissance was a cultural movement beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The invention of printing sped the dissemination of ideas from the later 15th century. As a cultural movement, it encompassed innovative flowering of Latin and vernacular literatures, beginning with the resurgence of learning based on classical sources.  In politics the Renaissance contributed the development of diplomacy, and in science an increased reliance on observation that would flower later in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

There is a consensus that the Renaissance began in Florence. Various theories have been proposed to account for its origins and characteristics, focusing on a variety of factors including the social and civic peculiarities of the city at the time; its political structure; the patronage of its dominant family, the Medici; and the migration of Greek scholars and texts to Italy following the Fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Turks marking the end of the Roman Empire.

Florence became a microclimate creating this preverbal weather system and it swept throughout the west.  New ideas proliferate when professional or cultural fields collide. That is what  Frans Johansson dubbed the “Medici Effect.“  Several of the greatest artists and leaders of the age studied or worked in the city, including Michelangelo and Botticelli. Michelangelo began to study painting in Florence with Ghirlandaio and later learned sculpture under the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent. It was for the Florence cathedral that Michelangelo created his famous sculpture of David. The Renaissance aesthetic is apparent in the careful and accurate depiction of the human body and its representation as a nude.
It is also where Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci rose to prominence as an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographerbotanist, and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, a man of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”
2) American Revolution: Boston and Philadelphia in the 18th Century

The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America., championed by Samuel AdamsPatrick HenryJohn AdamsBenjamin FranklinThomas JeffersonThomas PaineGeorge WashingtonJames Madison and Alexander Hamilton. They first rejected the authority of the Parliament of Great Britain to govern them from overseas without representation, and then expelled all royal officials.

The American Revolution microclimate was the result of a series of social, political, and intellectual transformations in early American society and government, collectively referred to as the American Enlightenment. Americans rejected the oligarchies common in aristocratic Europe at the time, championing instead the development of republicanism based on the Enlightenment understanding of liberalism. Among the significant results of the revolution was the creation of a democratically-elected representative government responsible to the will of the people. However, sharp political debates erupted over the appropriate level of democracy desirable in the new government, with a number of Founders fearing mob rule.  The city of Philadelphia functioned as a hub for the colonies where many of the great leaders of the time met to discuss and debate all of the issues above.

3) Paris and the Lost generation of the 1920s

Another microclimate emerged after World War I in Paris with the Lost Generation.  The “Lost Generation” is a term used to refer to the generation, actually a cohort, that came of age during World War I.  Full of youthful idealism, these individuals sought the meaning of life, drank excessively, had love affairs and created some of the finest literature to date.

There were many literary artists involved in the Lost Generation. The three best known are probably F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Others usually included among the list are: Sherwood Anderson, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Ford Maddox Ford and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Sara and Gerald Murphy inspired an astonishing array of the century’s greatest writers and artists. While indulging Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s childish antics, providing encouragement and financial assistance to Ernest Hemingway (who later rewarded them with paranoid vitriol in A Moveable Feast), they helped float, inspire, and otherwise sustain the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ferdinand Leger, Man Ray, Cole Porter, John Dos Passos and Dorothy Parker, to name but a few
4) The Beat Generation in San Francisco 1950s
Beat Generation was a group of American post-World War II writers who came to prominence in the 1950s, as well as the cultural phenomena that they both documented and inspired. Names like Jack KerouacAllen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs lead the movement. Central elements of “Beat” culture included experimentation with drugs, alternative forms of sexuality, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and the idealizing of exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression and being.

The original “Beat Generation” writers met in New York. Later, in the mid-1950s, most of the central figures ended up together in the microclimate of San Francisco where they met and became friends with figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance.

In the 1960s, elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the Hippie counterculture.

The Beats had a pervasive influence on rock and roll and popular music, including the BeatlesBob Dylan and Jim Morrison: the Beatles spelled their name with an “a” partly as a Beat Generation reference, and Lennon was a fan of Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg was close friends with Bob Dylan and toured with him in 1975. Dylan cites Ginsberg and Kerouac as major influences.

Jim Morrison cites Kerouac as one of his biggest influences, and fellow Doors member Ray Manzarek has said “We wanted to be beatniks”. In his book “Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors”, Manzarek also writes “I suppose if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed.”

5) Haight-Ashbury of the 1960s
The neighborhood became the microclimate of the San Francisco Renaissance and with it, the rise of a drug culture and rock-and-roll lifestyle by the mid 1960s.
1967, the neighborhood’s fame reached its peak as it became the haven for a number of the top psychedelic rock performers and groups of the time. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin all lived a short distance from the intersection. They not only immortalized the scene in song, but also knew many within the community as friends and family. Another well-known neighborhood presence was The Diggers, a local “community anarchist” group known for its street theatre who also provided free food to residents every day.

The “Summer of Love” attracted a wide range of people of various ages: teenagers and college students drawn by their peers and the allure of joining a cultural utopia; middle-class vacationers; and even partying military personnel from bases within driving distance. The Haight-Ashbury could not accommodate this rapid influx of people, and the neighborhood scene quickly deteriorated. Overcrowding, homelessness, hunger, drug problems, and crime afflicted the neighborhood.

From 1964 to 1968, there swelled a gigantic wave of cultural and political change that swept first San Francisco, then the whole United States, and then the world. What was fermenting in the microclimate of the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco was a powerful brew

Haight’s popularity grew as the Beat Generation in San Francisco was dying out. Many of the Beats, such as Allen Ginsberg, crossed over, but a younger generation gravitated to the Haight-Ashbury district, where the rents were cheap. Many were students at nearby University of San Francisco, UCSF, and S.F. State University. Others were musicians (such as the Grateful Dead), philosophers, artists (such as Alton Kelley), poets (such as Allen Cohen), apartment-dwellers, panhandlers, and even future CEOs of companies such as Pepsi, the Gap, Smith-Hawken, Lotus, and Rolling Stone magazine–all collaborated, communicated, thought and thrived in this strange microclimate.

6) Silicon Valley of the 1980s and Today

Ralph Vaerst, a successful Central California entrepreneur, first coined the term Silicon Valley. “Silicon Valley in the USA,” Valley refers to the microclimate of Santa Clara Valley, located at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, while Silicon refers to the high concentration of companies involved in the semiconductor  and computer industries that were concentrated in the area. These firms slowly replaced the orchards which gave the area its initial nickname, the Valley of Heart’s Delight.

Since the early twentieth century, the microclimate of Silicon Valley has been home to an electronics industry. The industry began through experimentation and innovation in the fields of radio, television, and military electronics. Stanford University, its affiliates, and graduates have played a major role in the development of this area. Some examples include the work of Lee De Forest with his invention of a pioneering vacuum tube called the Audion and the oscilloscopes of Hewlett-Packard.

Big name leaders helped form Silicon Valley–Steve JobsLarry EllisonEric SchmidtMark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page to only name a few.

Hwang’s article states the “formation of a unique [Silicon Valley] culture [my term: microclimate] — one that allows people with diverse skills, who often don’t know each other, to mix and match: collaborating and trusting in ways that people in other cultures don’t. It is not simply creative destruction, as many observers say. More importantly, it is a process of creative reassembly, as people join forces on temporary projects and then recirculate and recombine for other projects later.”

Historically it appears, there were several tectonic plates that merge to create these amazing cultural and innovative microclimates (fighting C3 with 3Cs), all very different times, with different issues–art, politics, literature, music, poetry, and technology–yet all five case studies have a few things in common.

  • A significant global event or catalyst…crisis, complexity, and confusion…
  • Renaissance was the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Roman Empire
  • American Revolution was The Enlightenment, European colonialism and taxation without representation
  • Lost Generation was The Great War (World War I)
  • Beat Generation was World War II and the beginning of the Cold War
  • Haight Ashbury was Vietnam
  • Silicon Valley was the Cold War and the ushering in of the Information Revolution
  • Out of the C3 we find Leaders with bold personalities who act as catalysts:  The Medici Family, Michelangelo, Leonardo diVinci, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak.  Not all these people are your stereotypical leaders, but like them or not… one can not deny their influence.
  • These leaders were able to develop, refine, push their ideas and concepts ideas using the 3Cs of Communication, Creative thinking, and collaboration.
  • Communication:  discussing ideas and concepts as well as finding those places where different venues such as art and technology, politics and literature converge and then exploiting those seams for greater directed energy and impact
  • Collaboration, partnerships, and friendships…we are stronger together
  • Creative thinking and time to think….Millions of new ideas were created by these great minds at the intersection where professional and/or cultural fields collide.  The most successful juxtaposed two or more fields and thus produced incredible change which led the world in new directions.

If we seek truly innovative and strategic change… crisis, complexity, and confusion must be attacked by leaders utilizing communication, collaboration, and creative thinking.

5 Replies to “Disruptive Thinking, 6 Innovative Microclimates, and Leadership for Strategic Change”

  1. Outstanding – thanks for a great article. One way to think about microclimates abstractly is as network structures. The corridor between MIT and Draper at Hanscom, as well as Silicon Valley, each created clusters with tremendous intellectual economies of scale. The Medici example of communication, creativity and collaboration is excellent – Padgett describes this in formal network terms (brokerage due to betweenness centrality) in his “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medicis.” (http://home.uchicago.edu/~jpadgett/papers/published/robust.pdf.) Another great work that supports your thesis is David Lake’s ‘Clash of Ideas in World Politics’ (http://www.amazon.com/Clash-Ideas-World-Politics-Transnational/dp/0691142394) – the idea of disruptive heterodoxy incubating in a microclimate before it is able to truly challenge an orthodoxy figures prominently in his work. Thanks again!

    1. Dave: great scoop, thank you…look forward to digging into your links, find this fascinating. Anything else you can think of is most appreciated.

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