On the Origin of Ideas

In his book “The Nature of Technology” author W. Brian Arthur (formerly of PARC and the Santa Fe Institute) provides a bold theory for the evolution of technology.  He defines technology in several ways, the first being “The means to fulfill a human purpose”.  He sees technology as a tool that people can use to solve problems, implying that each technology provides a specific set of functions.   Given the state of humans understanding of basic scientific phenomenon, Arthur argues, in a rather Darwinian fashion, that each technology is a combination of existing technologies, and moreover, that technology is actually autopoietic (self creating) and that markets select the fittest.   This implies that very few if any inventions are created “out of the blue” or they are at least created or discovered using preexisting technology instruments (e.g. penicillin).

Charles-Darwin-1880-631Arthur defines innovation, or at least radical innovation, as the redomaining of a particular area of technology or providing entirely new ways to achieve a given purpose (jet aircraft engines vs. piston engines to achieve fast aircraft speeds at high altitudes).  Arthur discusses how most technologies undergo a familiar life-cycle, much like how Thomas Kuhn describes the evolution of scientific paradigms:  Creation of a new system, which eventually runs into limitations, thus its structure elaborates until the point where improvements are no longer feasible leading to the creation of a brand new principle, usually simpler (and it eventually too becomes more elaborate over time).

As you begin to develop the full business model for your particular idea (or technology or innovation), ask yourself the following questions first, inspired by W. Brian Arthur’s interesting thesis on the evolution of technology:

  1. What is the function of your idea (what does it do)? – Also applies to services!
  2. What are its basic building blocks (or technology components from which it has evolved)?
  3. Is it a radical innovation, i.e. is it redomaining an existing area of technology?….or
  4. Is it evolving an existing system to stretch its useful lifetime and how?
    1. Internal replacement (Improving some given bottleneck inside a large system, e.g. improving a modem)?
    2. Structural deepening (Adding more subsystems to a given large system, e.g. adding interface capabilities to a System on Chip (SoC))
    3. Adaptive Stretch (Once improvements to a given technology are exhausted, including component replacement and structural deepening, all that’s left is to prolong the lifetime of a given system through delaying change by stretching the old technology for new purposes (e.g. Prolonging 3G cellular tech, using various techniques)

Just as author W Brian Arthur postulated a theory for technology and his role model, the great Charles Darwin postulated a theory for nature, so may you also assert a theory of the nature of your specific idea or technology so that your intended audience/investors understand how it may evolve over time.   As a reminder, whether your idea is a radical redomaining of a new area or a major improvement to an existing domain doesn’t by itself make it a better or worse innovation nor a surer way to win the class competition and attain an ‘A’, or better yet, real world funding, for that matter – it’s simply important to understand its nature (function, building blocks, domain) so as to properly evolve it.

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