Recently read “The Lever of Riches – technological creativity and economic progress” by Joel Mokyr and really enjoyed it.  As well as some fascinating history Mokyr dissects various theories about explanations for the conditions for technology progress.  I particularly like his thinking about ecological and evolutionary analogies for technology development and exploitation.  He’s very precise about the importance of being clear about the unit of analysis (the firm or the idea) and ensuring that analogies are just that – and I think that clarity leads him to more insightful conclusions.

I also like his differentiation between a ‘macroinvention’ – the ones that set industries off on whole new paths  and ‘microinventions’ – the continuous adaptive incremental improvements.  As he says “a macroinvention is an invention without clear-cut parentage, representing a clear break from previous technique”.  And the two types complement each other.  The macro requires the micro to perfect it and optimise it, while the micro without the macro will eventually peter out.

Of course, these two also map nicely onto the evolutionary analogue of punctuated equilibrium.

Mokyr also comments on that most fascinating of invention – the ones that could have occurred at any time.  The majority of inventions and innovations are a consequence of history, of a point in time, depend on capability and are unlikely to have occurred earlier.  But these ‘timeless’ ones are special.

Doing a bit more research, I find that 400 years ago Francis Bacon distinguished between inventions that depend upon the appropriate technology and those which could have been made at any time, though his examples are debatable [1].

The wheelbarrow and the button are Mokyr’s examples of inventions “whose timing we cannot explain”.  Such inventions fascinate me because they have such capacity for rapid roll-out and exploitation (i.e. effective innovation), simply because they don’t have a fundamental technology constraint.  (But of course they may face other constraints – such as social acceptability, opposing vested interests, regulatory constraints).

Business model innovation is often a ‘timeless invention’  – another reason for its potential power and impact.

There are also variants of this phenomenon expressed as i) “It’s obvious once you’ve seen it” and ii) “you didn’t know you needed it until you saw it”.  Type (i) are the solutions to well-known problems and may very well be ‘timeless’ and Type (ii) are solutions to unarticulated needs.  But Type (ii) are usually dependent on a new capability being available to meet the need, so may not be good examples.

Encouragingly, as technology accelerates, we move to a world where we can probably do it – if we could but imagine / envisage / invent it – we don’t have to wait for the technology to catch up, unlike the condition of the last several thousand years.  Hence even if such technology-based innovations aren’t ‘timeless’, they may well be innovations ‘whose time has come’.

But there’s no obvious framework for developing a competency in these ‘timeless’ forms of invention.  It presumably requires a clear grasp of the functional need to be addressed together with a very rich repertoire of mental models and paradigms to provide candidate solution paths.  And then a flash of inspiration?  But it’s not at all clear how this form of invention might be codified or institutionalised (despite the best efforts to date of TRIZ practitioners, de Bono and others in creative thinking).  There’s still space for further development of insight here.

 

 

[1] Donald Cardwell, http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/1968HisSc…7..112C/0000114.000.html

 

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