This is a term coined by Clay Shirky to describe the ideas, skills, knowledge that resides in peoples minds, and on enterprise shelves, unused, ignored, and sometimes actively avoided.
His argument is that there has been a huge shift in behavior, no longer are we passive consumers of media, our expectation now is that we are also able to produce and share, and we all want to, hence the growth of social media. The story of the little girl looking for the mouse behind the TV screen towards the end of this talk on his notion of Cognitive Surplus, says it all.
It seems to me however, that we can push the idea a bit further, fragmenting it, focusing our thoughts a bit more, to recognise the potential value of the pieces.
A product development brainstorming is nothing more than an effort to identify the knowledge, that sits around in peoples heads, research labs archives, unwanted prototypes, incomplete projects, solutions to customer problems suppliers have but do not recognise, and so on, but they are wasted because nothing is being done.
An Innovation surplus?
An idea that has exploded around Australia is that of “Mens Shed” an organisation that uses the skills of older blokes to make a contribution to their community, some retired, others just wanting to do something useful . This may be an example of a “Social Surplus”.
When you look around, there are many situations where unused brainpower and skills can be used better than they are now, finding a way to do that is leveraging the surplus that exists, and we all benefit.