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Can Improvisation Help Us Innovate The Future?

Devon Meyer, William Leong |
September 24, 2010 | 3:46 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Mike Bonifer, author of Game Changers, leads a group of USC faculty and students in an improvisational game. (Photo courtesy of Devon Meyer)
Mike Bonifer, author of Game Changers, leads a group of USC faculty and students in an improvisational game. (Photo courtesy of Devon Meyer)
It is Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010, and the fifth floor of Ronald Tutor Hall is filled with science and journalism enthusiasts from all disciplines. Mike Bonifer, film writer, director, and author of the book Game Changers stands in front of a collection of USC students and faculty.

The meeting concerns improvisation. The general attendees separate into three teams, and each are called up occasionally to play simple improvisational games. In these games, esteemed professors are placed into a group with freshman electrical engineering students, and operate on the same level. Confusedly and somewhat embarrassed being put on the spot, the games begin with a slow start.

However, with time, the groups begin to work together, and establish what Bonifer coins the “group mind.”  A “collective unconscious” into which every member of the group taps, and takes what every other member contributes, building upon that idea with their own interpretation.

These games have nothing to do with science, technology development, or anything really substantial. It is the idea of placing each individual into a scene to add to the mixture of great ideas that emerges as the general theme.

Mike mentions a powerful improvisational idea he called “yes, and.”  Using this idea to brainstorm, group members end up developing a new unique idea rather than arguing over personal ideas and keeping to themselves.   

In a typical corporate environment, the person that holds a high status is the one who is in a position of power, even if he or she is not the most qualified person with respect to the subject at hand. However, as we learned, “the scene itself” as Bonifer put it, “should decide who has status.”

In other words, the person who has the best ideas should lead the discussion, regardless of their status in the corporation.

The first half of Bonifer’s lesson is reminiscent of a book entitled The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelly, general manager of IDEO, a Silicon Valley-based design firm.  This novel describes IDEO’s use of brainstorming techniques that implement a group mind, where no idea is considered a "stupid idea," because it can lead to exciting new innovations.

After playing a series of impromptu games, Bonifer asked each group to think of a modern appliance or machine, such as a tractor, and develop a design, made of completely natural components, that carries out the same task as that original machine.

As we presented our designs, Bonifer began to explain that the exercise we had just completed was an example of a powerful idea called biomimicry:

Biomimicry “is an emerging discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.” 

Nature always seems to beat humanity in designing efficient, self-sustaining, and powerful mechanisms to carry out tasks. Many believe that by mimicking the processes available in nature, human civilizations can come up with better designs for our own machines.

Leonardo da Vinci was an early scholar of biomimicry, which can be seen in his attempt to invent a flying machine by observing a bird’s natural flight mechanism: using what is already present in nature to carry out a specified task.

In the end, it was a combination of the power of innovation through improvisation as well as the intuitive practice of biomimicry that was the thesis of Bonifer’s lesson.

Sustainability is an increasingly important issue with every passing day, and revolutionarily new ideas are needed to keep disasters such as the Gulf Oil Spill from ever repeating themselves.

Biomimicry, it seems, hand-in-hand with improvisational innovation, are two tools that will help design and sustain the future of human civilization.


Reach reporter Devon Meyer here.

Follow reporter Devon Meyer on Twitter: @DMeyer212.

Reach reporter William Leong here.

Follow reporter William Leong on Twitter: @willzthethrillz.


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