August 1, 2013

Universal Patterns and Origins of Innovation

Here are two recent posts on innovation originally featured on my micro-blog, Tumbld Thoughts. Each post reviews a comtemporary book on the patterns inherent in the innovation process. The first (I) features several different archetypes, while the second (II) features the kinds of environments that are key for maximizing innovation.

I. Universal Patterns of Innovation

Interesting book I ran across recently on the universal "patterns" that seem to underlie innovation and invention [1]. While the book is about much more than this, one core theme is the practice of discovery and what we might learn from looking at the practices of different inventors. 

One way to take advantage of these patterns is to learn the rules of innovation. These rules are defined as the underlying talent, knowledge, and allocation of resources neccessary for innovation. Another lesson learned is to recognize there are at least three principles (better understood as personal styles) that define great inventions. These are:

1. Serendipity, or being able to exploit chance discoveries. William Shockley's work with semiconductors (leading to the transistor) best exemplifies this principle.

2. Proof-of-principle, or the 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration approach. Thomas Edison's work on the incandescent lightbulb best exemplifies this principle.

3. Inspired Exertion, or the greater than 1% inspiration approach. Jeff Hawkins' work in developing the Palm mobile computer best exemplifies this principle.

The third lesson that leads us to innovation is to study the designs of great innovators. See these Synthetic Daisies post from 2009 and 2011 on my own (evolving) thoughts on this topic.

II. The Origins of Innovation

Here is a link to a sped-up whiteboard animation video featuring content from Steven Johnson's book "Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation" [3]. His main thesis is that innovation tends to occur in connected spaces such as cities, reefs, and webs [4]. As mentioned at the end of the video: "chance favors the connected mind".

Innovation also occurs as a process. One of these processes is called the slow hunch. The example Johnson gives for this is Tim Berners Lee and invention of the internet. At first, the proto-internet was conceived as a way to organize personal data. The next stage involved extending the connectivity aspect to interpersonal tangles. Finally, a version of the internet we all recognize came to fruition as a dynamic set of interconnected documents and links. This process of successive iteration took years to achieve.


[1] Alesso, H.P., Smith, C., and Burke, J.   Connections: Patterns of Discovery. Wiley/IEEE Press (2008).

[2]  Alicea, B.   Innovation Class/Book. Synthetic Daisies blog, June 30 (2009) AND Alicea, B.   In praise of repetition? Synthetic Daisies blog, April 11 (2011).

[3] Also see his TED talk on the book. For more sped-up whiteboard animations on innovation and the process of invention, please see: Alicea, B.   New Directions in Making Innovation Pay. Synthetic Daisies blog, June 1 (2013).

[4] The city is a literal city (particularly the mixing that occurs on city streets), the reef is a space that metaphorically resembles a coral reef (diverse individuals visit to feed and mingle), and the web is a network (made explicit in the internet).

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