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The increasing role of recombination in innovation

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Whilst innovation is so often seen as the creation of something new and unique, I’ve long argued that it is much more likely to be a recombination of existing technologies and ideas in new and novel ways.

A good start point for exploring the power of recombination is Martin Weitzman’s classicpaperon 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.

Recombinant innovation

The propensity for innovation to occur in this was highlighted in a recent paper that set out to analyze the innovation landscape.

The researchers trawled through patent records from the US Patent and Trademark Office dating all the way back to 1790.  Each record is codified to classify each patent as a truly new thing or a variation of existing technologies.

The paper reveals that throughout the history of the USPTO, roughly 40 percent of all patents are actually refinements of existing work, with the remainder therefore being novel works.

“Suppose you write a long novel. You may emphasize the introduction of new vocabularies or the introduction of new phrases,” the authors say.

Now, the interesting thing is that the ratio appears to be changing.  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.

This trend appears to be even more pronounced as we move into the current age, with most patents now regarded as a recombination of existing work.

Whilst I’m not convinced of the merits of using patents as a good metric for measuring innovation, the paper does provide a good deal of support for the merits of recombination.

All of which renders the importance of having good sensing and horizon scanning capabilities within your organization, so you can see and understand the ideas that may work effectively together.

Get in touch if you’d like some help with setting up horizon scanning for your employees.

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