A Japanese electronics company once invited me to visit its blue-sky laboratory outside Tokyo. The idea was to dispell the myth that Japanese industry was a mere imitator, getting a free ride on other countries’ pure research. The lab (it had some cute name, which I've forgotten) was designed to nurture creative free-thinking, said my guide, pointing out the bean bag chairs and Espresso machines. ’We even allow our researchers to wear jeans to work.’
Sure enough, when I met the team over lunch, jeans were worn. Brand new and sharp-seamed. By everyone, including portly 50-something senior executives. I don't think the lab went on to win any Nobels.
Incubating innovation is a tricky business, as numerous companies and academic institutions - not to mention governments - have discovered. Throwing money at research is not always necessary and is never sufficient. The counter examples, the twin 1960s triumphs of the Apollo moon programme and Green Revolution, were essentially massive deployments of existing knowledge towards highly specific targets, rather than fundamental breakthroughs. They suited themselves to a top down approach.
The 1970s War on Cancer, by contrast, petered out because the fundamental knowledge was not there. Likewise the effort to build a fifth generation of computers in the 1980s by trying to replicate the supposed neural structure of the brain.
Since those days conventional wisdom has realised that innovation works in mysterious ways, though generally from the bottom up, and that the biggest breakthroughs from R&D programmes are totally unexpected. There is no indication that anyone at the Pentagon foresaw that launching the global positioning satellite network would create a multi-billion-dollar geolocation industry. And certainly no one at the European particle research centre CERN could have predicted the outcome of allowing a young computer scientist called Tim Berners-Lee to develop his idea for an information management system.
The best bet, it seems, is to aim for a difficult, but fundamentally achievable outcome - but to be hyper-alert for any spinoffs that emerge along the way.
All this makes senior managers (and governments) uncomfortable. When we budget for a programme we and our shareholders generally like to know what to expect at the end. But this defeats the object of innovation, just as surely as self-consciously installing the trappings of Californian campus culture, like my friends in Japan.
It was in this sceptical frame of mind that I visited the legal profession's latest - actually, perhaps only - planned attempt to incubate innovation, the 'Fuse' tech innovation space at the London headquarters of magic circle firm Allen & Overy. It is billed as a space where technology companies, lawyers and clients can 'collaborate to explore, develop and test legal, regulatory and deal-related solutions'. At best I expected it to be a desperate PR exercise in hitching the firm's brand to the explosion of interest in 'lawtech' (note that this week's 'Legal Geek' tech networking event in London attracted well over 1,000 participants). At worst it might have been an utterly cynical scheme by a big firm to spot and exploit other people's bright ideas.
In the event, I was pleasantly surprised. Mainly by the evident calibre of the people representing the first eight tech companies to be picked to work in the space, but also at the thought that has clearly gone into the project. The emphasis is on a mix of cultures, with the generally non-competing businesses ranging from a significant player in legal artificial intelligence to a two-person start-up. Most interesting was the idea of placing the space next to a hot desking area for A&O lawyers, though predictably that has to be behind a glass wall, more or less forcing techies and lawyers to talk to each other.
What happens next, as Fuse head Shruti Ajitsaria clearly realises, is up to them.
I suspect Fuse will not be unique for long. In Singapore, a dedicated incubator for legal innovation is due to open in January, right opposite the Supreme Court. It is part of the FLIP programme being carried out by the Singapore Academy of Law, which is trying to bring smaller law firms up to the country's generally high level of tech-awareness. Representatives of the academy were in London last week to invite UK tech start-ups to join the programme.
No doubt we'll soon be hearing of more such initiatives - the blend of a sector of the economy crying out for technology-based modernisation at a time of massively exciting developments in artificial intelligence, blockchain-enabled shared ledgers and big data analytics, is a heady one for innovation.
My guess is that incubating this technological revolution will turn out to be a good bet for law - but in ways that are quite beyond prediction today. After all, that's why it's worth doing.