Is Innovation Contagious?

On the TED Radio Hour on NPR this week, I heard an interview with Gary Slutkin who presented a TED talk at TEDMED in 2013.  In his talk, Slutkin discussed his experiences fighting highly contagious diseases in Africa.  After a decade treating patients with cholera, AIDS and tuberculosis, he returned to America and saw similar epidemic levels of deaths in cities due to gun violence.  An epidemiologist by training, Slutkin began to wonder whether the spread of gun violence could be analyzed in much the same way he studied the spread of a virus in a community.  Taking the violence/illness correlation one step further, Slutkin wondered whether he could identify a “patient zero” who was involved in spreading violence in a community and set up active “blockers” to surround these individuals that could reduce the spread of violence.

If you’ve seen his TED Talk, you know that his research was successful.  In violent communities, Slutkin trained and embedded individuals that could peacefully mediate violent situations and work actively to promote more communication in communities.  Over the course of many trials in numerous communities, he was able to demonstrate how powerful positive (and negative) interactions can be and how they can spread like a contagious disease.

I know that many communities are facing real outbreaks of measles in America and Ebola in African countries.  My efforts here are not to downplay the seriousness of these issues or disregard the deaths and physical impacts of these diseases.  Instead, I wonder whether we could use Slotkin’s lens to examine (and promote) the spread of innovation on campuses.   Think about it.  You have a great idea for a lesson or a new way to assess your students.  Could we share that idea with a few colleagues and have those ideas spread across a campus?  Or maybe you’ve tried some new technology that really engaged your students and actively involved them in a lesson one day.  Could that spread like the flu across the institution, infecting your colleagues with creativity and active learning techniques?  Drawing on medical terms, maybe each of us could become a “patient zero” for innovation.  While the concept may sound a little odd, I have to say that the idea is somewhat empowering.  My mother always advised her sons to “kill them with kindness.”  Maybe, we can infect our colleagues with the innovative spirit.

While I see the power of contagious innovation, I also have to recognize the negative forces that impede this sort of transmission.  While some of us may try to spread innovation, others may be acting as “blockers” and halting the transmission.  They may be spreading isolationism.  Or distrust.  As Slutkin’s work has demonstrated, these sentiments can spread across a community as well.  And maybe that’s the real take away here.  Each of us is transmitting and blocking the spread of some cultural conditions across our respective campus communities.  What do you want to infect?


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