Category Archives: Innovation

No New Ideas on Innovation

Source:, Dec 2015

I recently got to watch a brand-name panel at work. It was an awesome list of people. Their accomplishments were legendary, heck, every one of them was legendary. They told great stories, had changed industries, invented new innovation platforms, had advised presidents, had won wars, etc. But almost none of them had had a new idea about innovation in a decade. Their recommendations were ones you could have written five years ago.

In a static world, that would be just fine. But in a corporate world of continuous disruption and in a national security world of continuously evolving asymmetric threats, you need to have crazy people being heard, or you’ll never get to the moon.

Innovation Evolves

Source: Rational Optimist, Nov 2015

Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically different? Of course not. No fewer than 23 people deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel and Bernard Finn.

The same is true of other inventions. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the very same day. By the time Google came along in 1996, there were already scores of search engines.

As Kevin Kelly documents in his book “What Technology Wants,” we know of six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. The history of inventions, writes the historian Alfred Kroeber, is “one endless chain of parallel instances.”

Simultaneous discovery and invention mean that both patents and Nobel Prizes are fundamentally unfair things. And indeed, it is rare for a Nobel Prize not to leave in its wake a train of bitterly disappointed individuals with very good cause to be bitterly disappointed.

The economist Edwin Mansfield of the University of Pennsylvania studied the development of 48 chemical, pharmaceutical, electronic and machine goods in New England in the 1970s. He found that, on average, it cost 65% as much money and 70% as much time to copy products as to invent them. And this was among specialists with technical expertise. So even with full freedom to copy, firms would still want to break new ground. Commercial companies do basic research because they know it enables them to acquire the tacit knowledge that assists further innovation.

Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinkered until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination is the last thing they do. As Adam Smith, looking around the factories of 18th-century Scotland, reported in “The Wealth of Nations”: “A great part of the machines made use in manufactures…were originally the inventions of common workmen,” and many improvements had been made “by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines.”

It was the economist Robert Solow who demonstrated in 1957 that innovation in technology was the source of most economic growth—at least in societies that were not expanding their territory or growing their populations. It was his colleagues Richard Nelson and Kenneth Arrow who explained in 1959 and 1962, respectively, that government funding of science was necessary, because it is cheaper to copy others than to do original research.

In 2003, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a paper on the “sources of economic growth in OECD countries” between 1971 and 1998 and found, to its surprise, that whereas privately funded research and development stimulated economic growth, publicly funded research had no economic impact whatsoever. None. This earthshaking result has never been challenged or debunked. It is so inconvenient to the argument that science needs public funding that it is ignored.

In 2007, the economist Leo Sveikauskas of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that returns from many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero and that “many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all.”

The perpetual-innovation machine that feeds economic growth and generates prosperity is not the result of deliberate policy at all, except in a negative sense. Governments cannot dictate either discovery or invention; they can only make sure that they don’t hinder it.

Innovation emerges unbidden from the way that human beings freely interact if allowed. Deep scientific insights are the fruits that fall from the tree of technological change.

SG: Nurturing an Innovation Culture

Source: StraitsTimes, Nov 2015

Singapore has to move progressively not only towards an economy driven by innovation, but also towards an innovative society.

Singapore also needs to change the culture in education – to move away from an obsession with children’s grades and focus more on giving them diverse experiences, he said.

“No one knows for sure how we get a creative people. But there is some consensus that diverse experiences in life, particularly early in life, do help.

“Diverse experiences and interaction with people from diverse backgrounds, that helps,” he said.

“And that means everything you do on the sports field, in the dance hall, in debate and even when you’re just daydreaming.”

Mr Tharman even took a couple of minutes out of his speech to endorse daydreaming, saying that the meandering of the human mind is not purposeless.

maximising the innovative potential of everyone in the team, whatever job they are doing. 

Tina Seelig’s Invention Cycle

Source: AMA Highlights, Feb 2015

a clear framework on going from inspiration to implementation, following the entire pathway from the seeds of an idea all the way to bringing it to the world.

Imagination requires engaging and envisioning what might be different. Creativity is applying your imagination to solve a problem. This requires motivation and experimentation. Innovation is applying creativity to come up with unique solutions. This requires focus and reframing. And, entrepreneurship is applying innovations to bring the to the world. This requires persistence and inspiring others.

Paul Romer: Growth Theory & Non-Rival

Source: Growth Economics blog, Oct 2015

The essential contribution of Romer (1990) is its clear understanding of the economics of ideas and how the discovery of new ideas lies at the heart of economic growth.

the first two sections of the 1990 paper are written very clearly, almost entirely in text and with the minimum required math serving as the light switch that illuminates a previously dark room.

Here is the key insight: ideas are different from essentially every other good in that they are nonrival.

Ideas are not depleted by use, and it is technologically feasible for any number of people to use an idea simultaneously once it has been invented.

The key is that nonrivalry gives rise to increasing returns to scale.

Once you’ve got increasing returns, growth follows naturally. Output per person then depends on the total stock of knowledge; the stock doesn’t need to be divided up among all the people in the economy.

With nonrivalry, growth in income per person is tied to growth in the total stock of ideas — an aggregate — not to growth in ideas per person.

Over long periods of recent history — twenty-five years, one hundred years, or even one thousand years — the world is characterized by enormous growth in the total stock of ideas and by enormous growth in the number of people making them. According to Romer’s insight, this is what sustains exponential growth in the long run.

Imagination -> Creativity -> Innovation -> Entrepreneurship

Source: Maria Shriver blog, Jun 2015

a hierarchy of skills, starting with imagination:

  • Imagination leads to creativity.
  • Creativity leads to innovation.
  • Innovation leads to entrepreneurship.

… proposed definitions and relationships for moving from imagination to entrepreneurship:

Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist. This requires curiosity, engagement and the ability to conceive of ideas in your mind.

Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge. Creative ideas fill a specific need and are manifest in the world. They are new ideas to you, but not necessarily new to others. It is important to distinguish between imagination and creativity. It’s imaginative to fill your thoughts with scenes of the seashore, and it’s creative to apply your imagination to paint a picture of the scene.

Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions. In contrast to creativity, innovative ideas are new to the world, not just new to the inventor. This necessitates looking at the world with a fresh perspective, and involves challenging assumptions, reframing situations and connecting ideas from disparate disciplines. The resulting breakthrough ideas reveal opportunities and tackle challenges that haven’t been addressed the same way before.

Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, to bring unique ideas to fruition, thereby inspiring others’ imagination. Clearly, entrepreneurship is needed in businesses that are designed to commercialize innovations, but it is equally important in all endeavors that depend upon entrepreneurial thinking to address thorny problems. Entrepreneurial doctors develop and deliver lifesaving procedures; entrepreneurial educators invent and deploy effective teaching techniques; and entrepreneurial policymakers craft and implement groundbreaking laws to address social problems.

The Invention Cycle

  • Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist.
  • Creativity is applying imagination to address a 
  • Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions.
  • Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, to bring unique ideas to fruition, inspiring others’ imagination.

Using Computers to Explore Options

Source:  MIT Technology Review, Sep 2015

Scientists in Boston have come up with a twist on an important method for “editing” genomes that could give researchers added control over the DNA of living things and influence a raging patent dispute over the powerful techniques.

Feng Zhang, a researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, reported today in the journal Cell that he had developed a replacement for a key component of the genome-engineering system commonly known as CRISPR-Cas9.

Eugene Koonin, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health who coauthored the paper in Cell, said the current work began with computer predictions of proteins in bacteria that might serve a similar cutting role as Cas9. “It is indeed a new system that is substantially different than the previously known one,” he says.