Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

New website will explore how our cities get to what’s next

April 20, 2014, 7:45 p.m., Posted by Steven Johnson


This fall author and media theorist Steven Johnson will debut a new series on PBS in association with the BBC called “How We Got to Now.” The series has been produced by Jane Root’s award-winning company, Nutopia, and is funded by the CPB/PBS Challenge Fund. As part of the launch, Knight Foundation is supporting the development of a complementary community and news site on how to make better cities, and partnering with Johnson on sharing his expertise through Knight’s national network of ideas. Photo credit: Nutopia. 

Shortly after the fall of Constantinople, a small community of glassmakers from Turkey sailed westward across the Mediterranean and eventually settled in Venice, where they began practicing their trade in the prosperous new city growing out of the marshes on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.

Their skills at blowing glass quickly created a new luxury good for the merchants of the city to sell around the globe. But lucrative as it was, glassmaking was not without its liabilities. The melting point of silicon dioxide required furnaces burning at temperatures above 500 degrees, and Venice was a city built almost entirely out of wooden structures. And so in 1291, in an effort to both retain the skills of the glassmakers and protect public safety, the city government sent the glassmakers into exile once again, only this time their journey was a short one—a mile across the Venetian Lagoon to the island of Murano. 

Unwittingly, the Venetian doges had created an innovation hub: By concentrating the glassmakers on a single island the size of a small city neighborhood, they triggered a surge of creativity, giving birth to an environment that possessed what economists call “information spillover.” The density of Murano meant that new ideas were quick to flow through the entire population. They perfected a new kind of clear, durable glass that would turn out to be one of the most important materials of the next 800 years, used in spectacles, telescopes, microscopes, test tubes, and eventually cameras and projectors. The scientific revolution might have unfolded on a much slower timetable had the glassmakers of Murano not invented the crystal-clear glass that became their trademark. 

Innovation hub will foster great ideas for our cities

April 20, 2014, 7:45 p.m., Posted by Carol Coletta


Photo credit: Flickr user Mycatkins.

Last year, I served as a judge for the Gensler Design Excellence Awards.  As I read through the entries from Gensler’s dozens of offices around the world, I was struck by one program requirement that was repeated from entry to entry in the office category. It was this: Design a space for our firm that will support chance meetings and the constant exchange of ideas among our employees.

Just before I went to Chicago for the Gensler assignment, I met Steven Johnson at a quirky little meeting at UC Berkley.  Steven, a prolific author and media theorist, was there to speak about his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From.”  He had just returned from shooting another segment of his new series for PBS and the BBC, “How We Got to Now,” scheduled for launch in fall 2014.

Steven is a great investigative reporter who takes on important, fascinating questions. Like Gensler’s clients, what he found is that the design and programming of place is central to sharing and spreading ideas. He also found that some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. 

Our question at Knight Foundation is what can cities do to become places where ideas “breed effortlessly”? How can cities support dense networks of creative people? How can ideas be made to flow more freely? How can cities encourage more spillover of ideas? How can cities widen the pool of minds that can come up with good ideas? How can cities create the tables where good ideas can be shared, especially as the economy relies less on large corporations and more on workers who are increasingly independent?

As Steven put it, the city is naturally a great engine of supercreativity. How can we take advantage of this great engine, especially in Knight communities?

56 ideas advance in News Challenge on strengthening the Internet

April 18, 2014, 5 p.m., Posted by John Bracken and Chris Sopher


Above: Advisers gather to review applications in Mozilla's offices. Photo credit: John Bracken. 

Yesterday we huddled with 14 advisers in Mozilla’s San Francisco office to help us determine a group of semifinalists in the News Challenge. Today, we’re sending notices to 56 projects asking them for additional information. We’ll look at their submissions over the next few weeks and, after considering the advice of another set of advisers, we’ll notify a group of finalists on May 12.

We received 704 submissions in the contest, which is focused on the question “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?”

We saw ideas covering a range of topics, among them access to the Internet, freedom of expression and ideas to fix the Web. Now we enter the “refinement phase.” For the next 10 days, we encourage you to review the entries and add your comments, questions and suggestions. During refinement, semifinalists will get the chance to provide more details about their ideas and respond to community input.

After the refinement phase, we’ll review the entries offline and select the winners. We will announce that group on June 23 at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference in Cambridge, Mass. Winners will receive a share of $2.75 million.