Excerpt from my book, Strategic Management of Innovation Networks, on the network as a way of seeing:
At first glance, there is little in common between the Seven Bridges of Königsberg and the New York Training School for Girls. Yet they mark the beginnings of a particular way of seeing what is around us, which is today referred to as the network perspective. In 1736 Leonhard Euler found a mathematical solution to the problem of devising the most efficient way of negotiating the city of Königsberg on foot: the Seven Bridges of Königsberg is often quoted as the first study in graph theory. Graph theory refers to the application of mathematical concepts and theories to a system that is composed of nodes and edges. Euler saw areas of land and bridges as a network of four nodes and seven links respectively. Two hundred years later, in a very different context, a leading sociologist, Jacob Moreno, conceived a similar network for the New York Training School for Girls, which had a problem with runaway students.* Moreno saw the girls as nodes and explained their runaway patterns by examining influence between them. His experimental work on this case is considered the leading study in sociometry today.
These two contributions in strikingly different contexts reveal just how broad a range of phenomena can be regarded as networks. We are witnessing this vividly in our contemporary world where there seem to be networks everywhere, in scientific research, the popular media and in business. Aside from the interest in online communities like Twitter and Facebook, we have learned about organised crime networks in Sicily, social networks of characters in Homer’s Odyssey and even the networks of common flavour compounds across ingredients in different parts of the world.**
A network perspective is particularly valuable when applied to innovation, since innovation is mainly about the flow of knowledge and resources between a variety of actors. I use the term flow of knowledge in the general sense: it covers scientific or technical knowledge shared between inventors, experience using a technology shared among peers, “who knows what” in an organisation or industrial district. A network perspective is an opportunity to take a bird’s-eye view of knowledge flows between people, technologies and organisations.
* Moreno published his research in his book Who Shall Survive (1934). Also see the New York Times article, “Emotions Mapped by New Geography: Charts seem to Portray the Psychological Currents of Human Relationships” on 3 April 1934.
** For the network of flavours, see Ahn et al. (2011); “Social networks of Homer’s Odyssey” is found in Miranda et al. (2013); for the network study of businesses involved in organised crime in Sicily, see Gurciullo (2014).