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Serendipity: Creative Process between Accident and Sagacity

Posted on by Brandon Klein

The notion of serendipity is quickly becoming an important reference for the creative industries as well as for our innovation-obsessed economy in general. This is remarkable as it was originally conceived in the middle of the 18th century within literary circles where it led its marginal existence until very recently. The term ‘serendipity’ was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, art historian and eccentric son of the First British Prime Minister. Walpole had come across the “silly fairy tale” Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo which was the Italian translation of the ancient Persian parable of the three princes of Serendip, the ancient of Sri Lanka. The king had sent his sons on a punitive expedition for having refused succeeding him after their education. As Walpole writes, during their travels the smart royal kids where constantly making “discoveries by accidents and sagacity of things they where not in quest of.” This became Walpole’s definition of his newly coined term serendipity and as such, it spread through the world of literates and bibliophiles. Scientists, of course, were always able to relate to the term as it describes pretty much the principle of scientific discoveries and inventions. Louis Pasteur’s often-cited adage about chance favoring only prepared minds is only the most famous statement as to serendipity’s significance for the world of science.

Today, serendipity has left the libraries and academic circles in order to start a new life in the network economy. Within the creative industries with their coworking spaces, creative hubs and start-up centers, the notion has become a guiding reference for the new generation of creative producers for whom the principle of the valuable unexpected encounters (of new ideas for products and services, funding opportunities, contracts, business partners, etc.) is something like the foundation of economic survival. Pop-science and management theory are at equally keen on serendipity as it seems to provide a lead into understanding the social dynamics involved in the emergence of novelty. Yet, in this wonderful world of TED, PechaKucha and awesome one-liners, it should not be surprising that serendipity is quickly becoming a fad. This is unfortunate as I believe that the notion offers more than meets the google-glassed eye.