Innovation as an Update #5 #cong17

By Tom Murphy.

Tom Murphy #5 Innovation as an Update

Click below to listen to the audio version.

In some ways innovation can be regarded as an evolutionary process. Every step forward, whether it is a major or a minor one, is strongly connected to the previous step. Over time these changes, little and large as they may be, if incrementally applied, can result in objects that seem fundamentally different from how they started out.

A classic example of this is the telephone. It went from being a hard wired microphone connected by a small cable to an earpiece to a portable super computer that can fit into most people's pockets.

Hindsight can give the mistaken impression that the various transitions of this communication device from one type of object to another were inevitable. We can call this movement, taken as a whole, progress. The underlying assumption being that what we have now is better than what we had before. It seems somehow natural and inevitable - very much like evolution.

But evolution and innovation are not the same thing. Evolution reflects the effects of the entire environment on a given object at a given moment. Since we exist in a universe where everything is connected then we experience all the dynamic forces that are in play regardless of how weak they are. What survives in an evolutionary process is the thing that works. Everything else is discarded. It operates with unpitying discrimination.

In contrast, innovation is one of the many quintessential human activities. We can update the objects that we create as we update and increase our knowledge of the world. We can use our greatest gift of all, our imaginations, to perform thought experiments. We can use whiteboards to make visual representations of what might work if one or more parts of a system were to be altered. We can use napkins to capture the sparks of potentially great ideas to work through at our leisure at a later time.

With innovation we can apply the considerable power of our creative brains to the things and ideas that surround us. But this does not mean evolution is out of the picture. The world keeps turning and what is new and cool today is shabby and ineffective tomorrow. It does mean that we are not confined by the evolutionary process. We don't have to wait for random mutations. We can, quite purposefully, introduce our own and see what happens. This gives us the power to shape our present and our futures in the most fundamental ways.

But we cannot be lax. We need to constantly update our tools and our perceptions of the world. Innovation is driven by changing needs and by changing technologies. This change is managed by using our imaginations to create a bridge between the old and the new, the out-dated and the modern.

One caveat is not to confuse innovation as an updating methodology with original creative thought. The German car industry makes extraordinarily well engineered cars that are the apotheosis of innovation - but they are still cars whose basic form and function has remained unchanged in the last hundred years. The original leap of imagination which was to replace the horse with a combustion engine has not been superseded by yet another great leap forward.

But the genius that produces the ideas that change our world is rare which makes innovation all the more important. We can constantly improve the world around us by looking around and seeing what works and what doesn't. We can assess what has withstood the test of time and what has been made obsolete by the forces of evolution. Then we use our creative imaginations to make the necessary adaptations. It is this constant updating that makes innovation work.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie