Rethinking Innovation

“Chance favours the connected mind.”– Steven Johnson


We tend to think of innovation as the spontaneous springing forth of something completely new, out of nothing. However, in this article I will argue that while this is widely understood as innovations definition, it is romanticised and fails to bear witness to the true reality its processes. I aim to problematise this definition to reveal the misconceptions folded into it. First, that innovation is all about ‘newness’. Second, the myth of spontaneous revelations. That is, the misunderstanding that the ‘light bulb moment’ is the predominant pattern of the process of innovation. Third, that innovation is a child of the isolated human mind. By going beyond these misconceptions and rethinking the nature of innovation we can hope to better understand it and learn how to better foster it in our lives.


Misconception 1: Innovation is about coming up with something new.


Innovation is commonly understood to involve the revelation of something new - a new method, a new idea, or a new product. However, I argue that innovation is more productively understood as arising when we combine two things that already exist. Or, a constellation of thoughts, ideas, and particular environments. In other words, creativity is combinatorial. Innovation arises when ideas are repurposed and reused and recycled rather than springing forth, ex nihilo. Rather than new ideas, innovation concerns new applications of ideas or new combinations of ideas. The writing of blogger and cultural critic, Maria Popova agrees that nothing is entirely original but rather builds on what came before. In one of her articles, she tunes in to how innovation arises from “taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations”. Popova also brings a useful analogy to the table: building castles using Lego blocks. It is by combining the different blocks (these could by ideas or methods garnered from different disciplines, cultures, or sectors) that we can build innovative castles. Importantly, the more building blocks we have, and more varied they are in shape and colour, the more innovative what we build will be. Consequently, fostering innovation in our lives requires the cultivation of a wide-ranging curiosity about the world that stretches across multiple disciplines and cultural perspectives.


Misconception 2: Beyond the ‘aha’ moment.


Our romantic idea of innovation is one of the ‘lightbulb moment’. However, studying historical patterns of innovation reveals that momentary inspiration is not the norm. Instead, most innovative discoveries are the result of a long period of cognitive incubation. Insight plays a role but it part of a wider cast of characters. In his book ‘Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention’ the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines five stages within the creative process. The process is set in motion by immersing the mind in a set of problematic ideas, this is followed by an unconscious gestation period during which connections are made. Next comes insight, then evaluation, and elaboration. Further, the stages of the cycle are cycles in themselves and the different stages interact. For example, the stage of elaboration is “constantly interrupted by period of incubation and is punctuated by small epiphanies” (p.80). We see this incubation period of ideas dotted through the history of creative contributions. Steven Johnson, media theorist and author of the 2011 book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, asserts that good ideas start as vague hunches that linger in the shadows of the mind for years, “assembling new connections and gaining strength” (p.77). We often believe that ideas come to us like an epiphany. This is how Charles Darwin describes his “Malthusian epiphany”. In his autobiography, he dates the revelation of his evolutionary theory to the 28th of September 1838. It is highly interesting to note that unbeknownst to even Darwin himself, this was not in fact the case. Or at least, not the full story. On trawling through Darwin’s notebooks years later, the psychologist and intellectual historian, Howard Gruber, made the fascinating discovery of a notebook entry exactly one year before the “Malthusian Epiphany”. Darwin writes in his notebook: “Whether every animal produces in course of ages ten thousand varieties (influenced itself perhaps by circumstances) and those alone preserved which are well adapted?” (cited in Johnson, p.80). One year before Darwin’s “epiphany” we see evidence that the hunch was already alive in his mind. Rather than the revelation suddenly swelled up within him, innovation drifted into his consciousness in waves. One of the best ways to keep our hunches alive is to keep notebooks, like Darwin did, and to keep revisiting them. This way we let our inklings percolate in our mind, feed them, and allow them come into confluence with other ideas.


Misconception 3: Revelation ex nihilo?


We tend to imagine innovation as a process that happens inside the containers of our minds. But in order to better understand innovation, there is a need to recognise the embeddedness of our minds in the material world - could it be that innovation actually emerges through dialogue with the material world? Examining further Darwin’s evolutionary theory, developed as a result of his time in the Galapagos islands, Steven Johnson writes, “Darwin’s world-changing idea unfolded inside his brain, but think of all the environments and tools he needed to piece it together: a ship, an archipelago, a notebook, a library, a coral reef.” (p.17). He is expressing how while ideas unfold in our minds, it is the material worlds that is, in phenomenological philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s words. the “homeland” of our thoughts. Anthropologist, Levi-Strauss’ notion of the ‘bricoleur’ can be helpful in understanding the embedded nature of the human mind in the material world and how the process of coming up with ideas unfolds. The bricoleur can be defined and understood through his opposition to the ‘engineer’. The engineer’s mind is independent of the material world and projects his external, abstract designs on the material world. The bricoleur, on the other hand, works in dialogue with his materials and with rather than against their constraints. Our minds our porous organs, affected by the surrounding in environment. In light of this, an innovative mind actively engages with the surrounding world, embracing its constraints as well as its possibilities.


Innovative ideas do not froth up from inside us to be released into the outside world. Rather, innovative ideas emerge through combining and rethinking things that already exist. This process unfolds in our mind through dialogue with the rest of the world, perhaps over the course of many years. No (innovative) man is an island. If we want to innovate, we need to connect-dots; untether our minds from a single discipline or viewpoint; cultivate hunches; and embrace and use our physical surroundings. In this way, rethinking innovation may mean rethinking some of the habits of our lives.

This article was written by Rebecca Appleton