Innovation Patterns – Mathematical Models

Source: MIT Technology Review, Jan 2017

Vittorio Loreto at Sapienza University of Rome in Italy and a few pals, who have created the first mathematical model that accurately reproduces the patterns that innovations follow. The work opens the way to a new approach to the study of innovation, of what is possible and how this follows from what already exists.

The notion that innovation arises from the interplay between the actual and the possible was first formalized by the complexity theorist Stuart Kauffmann. In 2002, Kauffmann introduced the idea of the “adjacent possible” as a way of thinking about biological evolution.

The adjacent possible is all those things—ideas, words, songs, molecules, genomes, technologies and so on—that are one step away from what actually exists. It connects the actual realization of a particular phenomenon and the space of unexplored possibilities.

But this idea is hard to model for an important reason. The space of unexplored possibilities includes all kinds of things that are easily imagined and expected but it also includes things that are entirely unexpected and hard to imagine. And while the former is tricky to model, the latter has appeared close to impossible.

What’s more, each innovation changes the landscape of future possibilities. So at every instant, the space of unexplored possibilities—the adjacent possible—is changing.

“Though the creative power of the adjacent possible is widely appreciated at an anecdotal level, its importance in the scientific literature is, in our opinion, underestimated,” say Loreto and co.

innovation seems to follow predictable and easily measured patterns that have become known as “laws” because of their ubiquity. One of these is Heaps’ law, which states that the number of new things increases at a rate that is sublinear. In other words, it is governed by a power law of the form V(n) = knβ where β is between 0 and 1.

these systems involve two different forms of discovery. On the one hand, there are things that already exist but are new to the individual who finds them, such as online songs; and on the other are things that never existed before and are entirely new to the world, such as edits on Wikipedia.

Loreto and co call the former novelties—they are new to an individual—and the latter innovations—they are new to the world.

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