Combinatorial innovation and evolution

An analogy that has been gaining in popularity these last few years is the idea of “innovation as evolution” — a model that implies that combinations of earlier innovation are what drive innovation not entirely new unheard of technologies suddenly appearing. In a recent paper, “Invention as a Combinatorial Process: Evidence from U.S. Patents” authors Hyejin Youn, Luis M. A. Bettencourt, Deborah Strumsky, Jose Lobo show that this is indeed what innovation looks like. They write:

Arthur and Polak [38] eloquently state the combinatorial view of technological change: “New technologies are never created from nothing. They are constructed – put together – from components that previously exist; and in turn these new technologies offer themselves as possible components – building blocks – for the construction of further new technologies.” (p.23) By using patent technology codes to identify distinct technologies and their combinations we are able to systematically and empirically study the combinatorics of invention. We find that the combination of technologies has indeed been the major driver of invention, reflected in an invariant introduction of new combinations of technologies engendered by patented inventions.

The introduction of new technological functionalities plays a minimal role in fueling invention once the system is mature. Instead, tinkering, gradual modification and refinements are very important in pushing invention forward. (My emphasis)

This is quite interesting and seems to imply that what we should do is to maximize the space for just this: tinkering, gradual modification and refinement. The results are worth examining closely, and we should of course be careful with drawing to far-reaching conclusions, but the method and results at least merit consideration by anyone interested in innovation, and perhaps in creativity overall. (Image. Dan Mason)

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