The importance of recombination is something I’ve touched upon numerous times over the years. Indeed, research suggests that innovations today are much more likely to apply an existing innovation in new ways than to invent something truly unique.
The study highlights that 40% of all patents submitted throughout the history of the USPTO are refinements of existing works. What is perhaps most interesting is that the ratio is changing significantly over time.
Truly new concepts seemed to grow exponentially up until around 1870, at which point growth began to slow. It was at this point that there were enough basic technologies that inventors had plenty of tools to work with in recombining technologies and approaches in new ways.
The power of recombination was then illustrated famously by Martin Weitzman’s classic paper on recombinant growth. In it, he develops a mathematical model of how an economy might grow. He defines various fixed factors, such as the tools and buildings an economy contains, but more importantly explores how these fixed items are augmented over time as ideas are combined and recombined into unique applications.
How universities help us recombine
In his latest book, Research Universities, the University of Michigan’s Jason Owen-Smith argues that universities play a crucial role in facilitating this potent form of innovation. He suggests that many of the most interesting innovations today are the result of existing knowledge and technologies that have probably not been combined before.
“Rarer, atypical combinations are often the source of higher-impact discoveries,” he says. “Many of those bits come from outside a given organization or must traverse boundaries among separate units within it.”
Universities can be powerful in this sense because they are, if nothing else, huge repositories of knowledge. It’s what Cesar Hidalgo describe as the bucket of Lego bricks, which when diverse can allow an economy to produce novel things very quickly in response to new opportunities. Whilst many of these knowledge bricks may be hidden from view in private organizations, they are nearly always available for outsiders to build with when they’re produced by universities.
“Accessible results of prior knowledge work conducted on campus and beyond, as well as the skills of the people working there represent essential set of bricks,” Owen-Smith says. “Networks that span many fields and units and in institutional bias towards conserving and sharing knowledge mean that few of those bricks are inaccessible when the time comes to find and use them.
This academic knowledge base is increasingly available, with a number of brokerage tools helping to make it easier than ever to search the literature for potential diamonds in the rough.
Whilst many of these require a human to be in the driving seat, there are also attempts to automate the recombination process. A recent paper from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem highlights an AI driven approach to mine databases of patents and research papers for ideas that can be recombined into solutions for new problems.
Central to the approach was an attempt to find analogies that connect seemingly disparate methods and problems. They used crowdsourcing to understand how people form analogies, before using this to train a deep learning algorithm to then mine the intellectual databases for potential innovations.
“After decades of attempts, this is the first time that anyone has gained traction computationally on the analogy problem at scale,” the authors say.
“Once you can search for analogies, you can really crank up the speed of innovation,” they continue. “If you can accelerate the rate of innovation, that solves a lot of other problems downstream.”
Regardless of whether you’re looking for ideas yourself or using technology to help you, the breadth and depth of knowledge produced by universities is undoubtedly fundamental to innovation today.
Indeed, a study published last year found that some 80% of published papers had contributed to at least one patent. What’s more, most of these connections were outside of their core domain, so patents would be registered in a completely different domain to the research article, underlining the power of basic research in driving recombinative innovation.
So, if you want to be innovative, you will benefit greatly from forging closer ties to academia.
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Adi Gaskell tells us: “I am a free range human who believes that the future already exists if we know where to look. From the bustling Knowledge Quarter in London, it is my mission in life to hunt down those things and bring them to a wider audience, with my posts here focusing particularly on the latest research on innovation and change.” Follow Adi @adigaskell