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Innovation isn’t about inventing new things

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Innovation isn’t about inventing new things

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When you think of innovation, it’s often the creation of something new and exciting that has never been seen before.  This notion has led some commentators to suggest that innovation is slowing down, and that we’ve almost invented everything there is to be invented.  Such a mentality has a long and noble history, but it does kind of paint the opposite end of the spectrum in a less positive light.

All of which rather underplays the importance of remixing already existing technologies and innovations in new ways.  In the eyes of economist Paul Romer, this form of innovation is the true driver of economic growth.

Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that make them more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe.

He talks about the defunct thinking that sees innovation as akin to that of a fruit tree, whereby each innovation has to be grown afresh.  This kind of thinking inevitably causes us to fret that we will eventually run out of new ideas, much as thinkers such as Tyler Cowen do today.

When we approach the task in terms of remixing existing ideas however, the potential is almost limitless.  First however, we need to overcome the mental block that suggests such remixing is inferior to more ‘blue sky’ innovation.

A study published a few months ago explored the issue of remixing ideas and concepts.  It highlighted the prospect of a remixing dilemma, whereby the parts of an idea that encourage people to take it and remix it, are such that they hamper the chances of that new work being original in itself.

It’s almost as if you get diminishing returns with each subsequent remix.  The study based its findings on the Scratch programming language.  Scratch programmers are encouraged to share their creations with others, and of course to use the creations of others in their own work, much as many open source languages do.

They found that famous programmers in the Scratch community would have their work reused a lot, but that many of the remixes were of a rather trivial nature, ie they weren’t adding much to the original.  What’s more, they also found that people were more likely to re-use existing remixes than they were purely original work.

All of which probably has some parallels with the commercial world.  After all, seemingly novel practices are generally taken from some often unknown source, before being taken to the mass market by the business schools and management literature.

This is a generally health process, and is no doubt representative of a natural flow of ideas throughout an ecosystem.  The challenge therefore is for organisations to get better at both sensing what is going on in the world, and then responding rapidly to those changes.

A big part therefore of any innovation effort is to ensure that ideas, both from inside and outside the organization, can be remixed as easily as possible.

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