Innovation

How does innovation happen? Is there a basis for innovation? How does radically novel technology arise? What lies at the heart of invention? What is the nature of the key insight in the process of invention? Is invention in science and mathematics different than in other types of technology? How does innovation develop? What can we do as individuals and as a society to foster innovation?

These profound questions come from the theory of innovation proposed by W. Brian Arthur in his 2009 book The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves.

We previously discussed this book in the 8 July 2012 discussion on "The Nature of Technology". This time we will focus on Arthur's theory of innovation which is covered in chapters 5-8 (material from chapters 1-4 will be used extensively as it provides the framework for Arthur's thinking).

This meetup is part of a series that I have organized in support of my exploration of design. Here are links to related discussions I have organized on the subject:

• Engineering Failures & Society (8 May 2011) 

• The Nature of Technology (8 July 2012) 

• The Essential Engineer (13 Jan 2013) 

• Design Thinking (9 Mar 2013) 

• Are Culture, Art and Design better ways to change society? (9 Jun 2013) 

• Technology and Invention in Finance (16 Feb 2014) 

• Design and the Sciences of the Artificial (13 April 2014)

• Social Planning: Design Considerations for Changing Society (8 June 2014)

• Social Planning: Design Considerations for Changing Society (Repeat) (14 June 2014)



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  • CJ F.

    The discussion of W. Brian Arthur's "Theory of Technology" will continue on Sun 21 Dec: The Evolution of Technology: http://www.meetup.com/thinkingsociety/events/212723962/

    December 8

  • Rona c.

    Very stimulating. Great group of participants. CJ kept the program on target.

    1 · August 18

  • Rona c.

    Very stimulating. Great group of participants. CJ kept the program on target.

    1 · August 18

  • Karl K.

    The depth and breadth of mental acuity was more than palpable at this get-together. It is a considered privelege to be invited to participate with you, especially under the leadership of a very patient C.J. Thanks so much for this day. It was special.

    1 · August 17

  • CJ F.

    Walking home, I thought about Arthur's definition of "a radically new technology as one that uses a principle new or different to the purpose in hand" (p. 108). My reading of Arthur interprets this as either a new phenomenon applied to routine purposes or an existing phenomenon applied to new purposes. Those are the two ways to invent in Arthur's taxonomy.

    Sevi suggested that maybe a new combination or perhaps a new modularity should also be called an invention. Since 1) combination, 2) modularity, and 3) phenomena are the three principles of technology in Arthur's theory, Sevi's question asks why should the connection between effects (phenomena) and a human purpose be the criterion for invention?

    I suspect Arthur's answer is that the link between phenomenon and purpose are more fundamental than combination & modularity. Changes in combinations of parts and the modular structure of a technology are innovative but as standard engineering not invention.

    What do you think?

    August 17

  • Yael

    Sorry I wasn't able to make it. Hope it was a great discussion!

    1 · August 17

  • CJ F.

    Another fascinating & important aspect of Arthur's theory of innovation is "redomaining" or revolutions in technology. These innovations profoundly change the way our economy operates. We often name a historical period based on its prominent redomaining such as the Steam Age, the Railroad Era, the Computer Age, the Internet Era or the Age of Plastics.

    Domains are "bodies of technology" that are "not invented" but "emerge, crystallizing around a set of phenomena or a novel enabling technology and building organically from these" (p. 145). They bring profound impacts as they encounter the economy creating "gales of creative destruction" (as Schumpeter called them) as well as "avalanches---should we call them winds---of opportunity creation" (p. 180). These redomainings or revolutions in technology have a profound impact.

    How do bodies of technology (domains) develop? How do they create a sense of time in the economy? How can individuals & nations navigate the changes from redomaining?

    1 · August 16

  • CJ F.

    Standard engineering refers to the development of technological innovations that use known & accepted principles. Arthur finds it is responsible for a significant amount of innovation. "The useful solutions ... go on to become elements or building blocks that can be used in further technologies" (p. 105).

    So what distinguishes invention --- novel technology ---- from standard engineering? According to Arthur "At the creative heart of invention lies appropriation, some sort of mental borrowing that comes in the form of a half-conscious suggestion" (p. 115). So is the community "more responsible" for invention than the inventor?

    Arthur continues "Invention at its core is mental association. ... Originators must have the imagination to see [a complex of factors involving combination, modularity, and effects]" (p. 122-2).

    As we explore Arthur's perspective (and critique it), I wonder: how can we use his theory to improve our inventiveness? To improve Philadelphia's inventiveness?

    1 · August 14

  • CJ F.

    Each of the four kinds of innovation mentioned in my comment yesterday (standard engineering, invention, structural deepening, and redomainings) is built on Arthur's theory of technology (definition: "a means to fulfill a human purpose", p. 28) with its three principles:

    1) Combination: "a technology is always organized around a central concept or principle: 'the method of the thing,' or essential idea that allows it to work" (p. 33)

    2) Modularity: "Technologies ... have a recursive structure. They consist of technologies within technologies all the way down to the elemental parts." (p. 38)

    3) Effects: "A technology is always based on some phenomenon or truism of nature that can be exploited and used to a purpose." (p. 46) "Phenomena are the indispensable source from which all technologies arise." (p. 47)

    So "A technology is a phenomenon captured and put to use."

    Is that right? Is that the essence of all technology? Is this theory adequate to explain all 4 kinds of innovation?

    1 · August 13

    • Karl K.

      Starting with the stone, (stone age), and progressing to the present day there have been more than a few changes. Are we assuming that all phenomena are observable? What if it/they are only theory laden? And, to what extent does our unconscious influence our choices for innovation?

      1 · August 14

  • Priya

    Hi, I am new to this group but I am interested in learning about this topic. Do I need to go through the links mentioned above before joining the group this Sunday?

    August 12

    • CJ F.

      Priya, you are already a member of the group. This group often has full events with waiting lists. So it is important to RSVP so that your seat can be reserved.

      Just go to the event http://www.meetup.com...­ and answer the question "Are you going?". That will register your RSVP.

      If your plans change, please update your RSVP so someone from the waiting list can get notified that they can attend.

      August 12

  • CJ F.

    In "The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves", W. Brian Arthur identifies four types of innovation:

    1. Standard Engineering (Chapter 5): "the carrying out of a new project, the putting together of methods and devices under principles that are known and accepted." (p. 91).

    2. Invention (Chapter 6): the development of "radically novel technologies".

    3. Structural Deepening (Chapter 7): structural deepening refers to the development of an invention.

    4. Revolutions and Redomainings (Chapter 8): this chapter looks at broad changes to our economy that result from the "encounter" between our economy and profound, new innovations over a long time span. This is where the notion of a "steam age" or an "internet era" comes from.

    Is this broad view of innovation with invention as a small element warranted? Is there value in this taxonomy of innovation?

    On p. 164: "Innovation is simply the accomplishing of the tasks of the economy by other means." Is it an economic function?

    August 12

    • Karl K.

      The author goes on to state that innovation emerges when people are faced by well specified problems. "It is enhanced by funding...." p.164 My wife once had an econ professor who sent her home with the dictum "everything is basically economic" Possibly he was correct. We'll peruse this further Sunday, I'm sure. Thanks for enervating the brain cells.

      1 · August 12

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