The source of knowledge for radical invention

Hat tip to Karthikeyan Arumugathandavan over on the increasingly useful LinkedIn group The Psychology of Creativity for pointing me to this 2010 paper  The technological origins of radical inventions by two researchers in the Netherlands, Wilfred Schoenmakers and Geert Duysters.

Based on the premise that radical inventions are driving forces of technological, industrial and societal change they examined 157 individual patents, selected from a pool of more than 300,000 patents, in the hope of making sense of where the really ‘radical’ ideas came from.

What surprised them was that ‘radical inventions’ were

to a higher degree based on existing knowledge than non-radical inventions. For radical inventions already existing knowledge seems of paramount importance.

The second finding of interest was that:

radical inventions are induced by the recombination over more knowledge domains. The combination of knowledge from domains that might usually not be connected seems to deliver more radical inventions.

As someone who currently straddles the boundaries of teaching innovation and facilitating knowledge sharing, I find these findings resonate strongly with my recent experiences. There are some great facilitation techniques and deep understandings of how to innovate and share in domains as diverse as art criticism, collaborative app development for smart phones through to deep ecology environmental storytelling.

With regard to more traditional ‘knowledge management’, if I dare describe it as such, Schoenmakers and Duysters themselves make some very relevant conclusions:

there is a need for more coordination of the knowledge within the firm, and more internal openness.

Not just the new scientific knowledge but also the recombination of already existing knowledge, mature and emergent, from different knowledge domains is vital.

There has been a lot said recently about the need for an organisation to have ‘anticipatory awareness’, to be ‘alert’ and to ‘adapt’ / ‘evolve’ quickly in response to their ever changing environment so this final conclusion is particularly insightful:

It also shows the importance of speed in understanding emergent technologies. Firms that are quick in understanding the possibilities that emergent technologies posses, and that therefore are able to combine this knowledge with mature and well-understood knowledge, might be better at delivering radical inventions.

and as anyone who has ever heard my ‘straightening the river’ story will be fully aware, there is a need to value this ‘mature well-understood knowledge’ which resides in the more experienced individuals, those that are currently so readily accepting early departure all across our vital Government scientific communities. (bit of politics there, watch out Ben Elton)


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