What’s a network? A powerful way to harness collective resources, skills, and ideas. Why should we adopt them? Read on. 
Everywhere you go, from TED Talks to education conferences, people seem to be talking about networks. Especially in Pittsburgh. But what exactly is a network?

In a classic definition, a network is simply “webs of human collaboration and exchange.”

When you think of networks, think of a coral reef. Each individual or organization is more effective that it would be alone. Photo/USFWS - Pacific Region

When you think of networks, think of a coral reef. Each individual or organization is more effective that it would be alone. Photo/USFWS – Pacific Region

But a network creates its own magic by the force of those webs of exchange. Because networks are made up of colleagues and strangers alike, they “enable diverse phenomena – whether information, emotions, germs, or money – to diffuse through them,” as network expert Nicholas Christakis writes in “Connected.”

Networks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from social networks like Facebook or our family and friends, to “clusters” of businesses in a city or region (a “cluster development” approach to economic development), to “innovation ecosystems” like the Remake Learning Network.

The power of networks is that people or organizations in them gain from being associated with one another, and each individual or organization is more effective that it would be alone.

What do networks need?
    • A Purpose. Networks are organized for a specific purpose, and those in the network are aware of the purpose.
    • Knowledge exchange. They rely on (and promote) open innovation and avoid proprietary information-hoarding.
    • Collaboration. Networks are not top-down structures. They feature “horizontal” collaboration (ties between various groups that represent shared interests), but supplemented with “power brokers” who have the ear of people who can effect change.
    • Leadership. They have a quarterback at the center in a stewardship role.
    • A mix of relationships. Networks include a balanced mix of both weak and strong ties among members.


What makes networks most effective?  

Networks are most effective when they have a balance of weak and strong ties and when they have a balanced mix of voices. As Bruce Katz wrote in “The Metropolitan Revolution,” “If everyone knows each other already, it’s not a network, it’s just another meeting.”

Strong ties are akin to close relatives or close-knit neighbors. Think small towns and tight ethnic neighborhoods. Weak ties are networks of acquaintances, workmates, or others we regularly interact with, but are less formal or tight-knit. Think colleagues in another city or friends of friends.

In “Connected,” Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler underscore the benefits of a mix of ties using an example of a musical:

“Teams made up of individuals who had never before worked together fared poorly, greatly increasing the chance of a flop. These networks were not well connected and contained mostly weak ties. At the other extreme, groups made up of individuals who had all worked together previously also tended to create musicals that were unsuccessful. Because these groups lacked creative input from the outside, they tended to rehash the same ideas that they used the first time they worked together.”

The importance of a healthy mix of ties is best told by Sean Safford in the story of two Pennsylvania cities and their rebounds (or not) from the demise of the steel industry. In “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown,” he argues that Youngstown was hampered in its recovery by a network of too-tight elites who isolated themselves from other groups in the region. Allentown, on the other hand, had looser networks and cross-cutting relationships that bridged different groups. Allentown rebounded, while Youngstown struggled.

“If everyone knows each other already, it’s not a network, it’s just another meeting.”

Likewise, a reliance only on “experts” without community voice will limit a network’s effectiveness. The urban planner Jane Jacobs saw cities as rich networks, where diversity, mixed-use zoning, and density bred spontaneity and creativity. She advocated for less big-scale Planning with a capital p from top-down city governments and more organic planning with a lower-case p, emerging from the rich networks of neighbors and dense interactions on the street.

Ok, I think I get what a network is. But how do networks actually cultivate innovation better than people working alone? 

Just as they do in spreading gossip, networks also spread ideas. Networks are dispersed and open, rather than top-down and secretive, and as such the people and organizations in them can readily share fresh ideas and new approaches to an issue. If you’re doing great work alone in the garage, and no one knows about it, it doesn’t matter, says network expert and Harvard professor Nicholas Christakis.

A helpful illustration of the connections in an open, dispersed network that spreads ideas and innovation. Photo/Austin Hill

“Ideas need a tight ecosystem to foster creative growth,” states the Boston Innovation District manifesto. In essence, networks increase the returns to being smart: we get smarter by being around people who are smart.

Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, argues that networks spur innovation by “seeping into the cracks.”:

“Together, network members come up with ideas, vet for the best ones, try things out, make things better, and over time start to transform their approach to teaching and learning. As this happens, people nearby start to say: ‘Hey, something is different here. And it’s kind of cool. I can try this.’ From there, innovations seep more deeply into the cracks. … Ideas that emerged and grew ‘in the cracks’ have gained the credibility and strength needed to become a part of a more mainstream plan for educational transformation. This is how innovation spreads—and how networks have an impact.”

Why is it important for networks to be open and share information easily?

As technology activists say, information wants to be free. While that is the hallmark of the internet, transparency and the ability to easily share are also critical to networks, argues Surman of the Mozilla Foundation, an organization whose open-source approach to software development is much heralded. Making information, ideas, and processes accessible, or “working in the open,” as he says, is “the grease that lubricates the network, allowing ideas to flow and innovations to spread.

“When people build things together they tend to own them emotionally and want to roll them out after they are created. If the people building together are from different institutions, then the innovations spread more quickly to more institutions.”

More importantly, he says, “they make it possible for people to genuinely build things together—and learn along the way. This point cannot be emphasized strongly enough: when people build things together they tend to own them emotionally and want to roll them out after they are created. If the people building together are from different institutions, then the innovations spread more quickly to more institutions.”

How do networks make it easier to “go to scale” with an idea?

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, has argued that networks—in his example manufacturing networks in the U.S.—are critical in making the shift from idea to product, that is, going to scale with an idea

Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. … A new industry needs an effective ecosystem in which technology know-how accumulates, experience builds on experience, and close relationships develop between supplier and customer.”

They need a network.

In education, as our own Playbook puts it, the same notion applies:

“Absent a radical shift in top-down educational policy, the best chance to equitably spread the adoption and speed the scale of innovative learning practices is through distributed, city-based networks.”

Has anybody actually put the network idea to work?

Economic developers regularly look to networks (or clusters, as they call them) for economies of scale, supply chains, and the pools of skilled labor they supply as the most effective way to spur growth. Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter has shown that cluster development is a strong spur to wage growth, new industries, and entrepreneurship.

In that vein, the move today is to replace the isolated suburban campuses of major corporations of the past, which secret away their innovations, with broad clusters of similar businesses whose workers rub shoulders with others at local coffee shops or gathering spots, sharing ideas and benefiting from the rich source of skills, resources, and serendipity. Cleveland is a good example, with its hub of advanced medical technology manufacturing, built on the area’s rich manufacturing know-how and local universities and hospital systems. Others abound.

In the world of commerce, the Guardian writes in a review of the book “Future Perfect,” “collaborative peer networks outperform free-market arrangements all the time.”

Sounds like an interesting theory. But how do networks spur change in bureaucracies like education or government?

Government also can look to networks. Author Steven Johnson has called for a “peer network” approach to civic engagement and social problem-solving. A new kind of institution, peer networks—more network than hierarchy—he argues, can be put to work to solve tough problems.

“A growing number of us,” he writes, “have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems – the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools.”  The solutions are then shared so that the network’s “hive mind” can implement and improve it.

Bureaucracies and big systems like education offer something else. To truly spur fresh ideas, we need both the “bazaar”—the noisy chaos and serendipity of networks—and the “cathedrals”— where people cloister and do the hard work to bring new ideas into the world. Bureaucracies of experts are akin to the cathedral, while the network beyond the school walls is the bazaar.

Michelle Cahill, vice president of the National Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, calls learning networks (or “ecosystems”) that combine such expertise with the bazaar of the city essential: “At the heart of an ecosystem for learning is an ability to draw upon the assets of an entire city or community to support students.”

Is there an example of an education innovation network?

The U.S. Office of Education Technology spearheaded the Education Innovation Clusters initiative to support several such networks to create an R&D pipeline and accelerate the pace of innovation by bringing together education, research, and commercial partners.

Today, #EdClusters continues with the support of Digital Promise, the Congressionally-chartered nonprofit organization committed to improving the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research.

What are drawbacks associated with networks?  

Not all networks are positive. Crime, contagion, and terrorism can all flourish in networks. Our networks also influence our health more broadly. A person’s chance of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if his or her friend is obese. They can also exacerbate inequality. Those with college degrees have networks that are nearly twice as large as those who did not finish high school.

Ok, now I’m intrigued. What are different examples of networks in action? 

Networks are emerging in many shapes and forms across the nation today. Below is an abbreviated list:

Other communities with their own education innovation networks:

You can dig deeper on Education Innovation Clusters with a free Remake Learning Playbook crowdcast with Cricket Fuller, Education Innovation Clusters Project Directior at Digital Promise, on Thursday, March 24th at 4:00pm.