Innovation in a world of infinite combinations
About a hundred years ago there was a pie company. Each pie was cooked on a round tin tray with slightly raised edges. One day it was discovered that these pie tins were surprisingly aerodynamic (if unsafe) and students took to throwing them back and forth at the nearby college campus. After throwing a tin students would warn innocent bystanders by shouting the name of the pie company: “Frisbie!”
A few years later, the age of plastics was upon us and the newly renamed, and much safer and softer, FRISBEE hit and dominated the mass market. This is the essence of innovation: using new or existing resources or ideas in new and unexpected combinations. Using the tins as toys was inventive, but remaking them in plastic was an innovation—and a profitable one at that.
This is the essence of innovation: using new or existing resources or ideas in new and unexpected combinations.
But clearly the Frisbee wasn’t the first thing ever invented. Long ago a cave man figured out that a fallen branch could be used to club both rivals and lunch, and then his neighbor figured out that a sharpened club could be thrown and the spear was born, and then a bit later we got the bow and arrow. Repeat the process a few million times and if you’re lucky, an iPhone will eventually drop out the other end.
In the early 20th century Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter defined innovation broadly as ‘new combinations’ of existing knowledge, products or services. Fast forward to today and the number of products, services, and technologies available has grown exponentially. For anyone looking to innovate by combining them in new and interesting ways, there has never been more choice or opportunity. You don’t have to look far for some potent examples:
We’re excited about 3d printers, but really they’re just a more nuanced application of the 2d printing that started with a screech in the 70s. Smaller, better mechanics and smaller, better microprocessors had to arrive before 3d printing could become practical. Since that finally happened, the technology hasn’t wasted any time getting either faster or cheaper.
Long ago a cave man figured out that a fallen branch could be used to club both rivals and lunch, and then his neighbor figured out that a sharpened club could be thrown and the spear was born, and then a bit later we got the bow and arrow. Repeat the process a few million times and if you’re lucky, an iPhone will eventually drop out the other end.
It seems like to some analysts cloud computing is the be all and end all of technology. But the elements of virtualization, wide area networks, and server farms are all technologies that matured on their own before being combined together into the next big thing. The cloud will get even better as more technologies are folded in.
Even the flat organization couldn’t exist until people realized that they had tools that could digitally codify and minimize the centuries of bureaucratic cruft that both held up and constrained the then-modern organization. Innovation, when intelligently applied, can be very useful.
Novelty comes from novel combinations. But there’s another category of combinations that, while interesting, are pointless. This distinction between clever new combinations and uses for their own sake (inventions) and clever new combinations that are profitably commercialized (innovations) is some Austrian thinking that is deftly summarized today as “everything is a remix.”
The pool from which we can remix, invent, and innovate grows deeper with each passing hour. For would-be innovators, the challenge today isn’t finding ideas, technologies, or resources that fit together well. Instead, the challenge is finding ideas, technologies, and resources that fit together in a new way to do something worthwhile—where worthwhile can mean “new” or “cheaper/faster.”
Companies are looking everywhere for ideas, products, and resources to remix into something new—and with good cause: the market is so competitive that doing the same old thing as everyone else means you can expect razor thin margins. The only way to make real money is to make something new, defend it as long as you can, then move on to the next new thing.