Innovation By Imitation: Study Shows That Success Comes From Imitation
from the go-with-what-works dept
We’ve discussed in the past the differences between invention and innovation — where invention is the creation of something new, and innovation is the actual process of putting it into practice. We’ve pointed out that the patent system is supposed to encourage the latter (innovation — as seen in the command that the system “promote the progress”) but in practice tends to promote the former at the expense of the latter. The problem is that people who aren’t that familiar with the process of innovation think that the two things are the same. But, in reality, innovation is an ongoing process, whereby people have to keep trying out different ideas to make something useful. Anyone who’s built a business learns this quickly: the original idea is usually meaningless by the time anything successful comes around. Real innovation is a process of continually trying out new ideas and tweaking them slightly until you figure out what really attracts the market’s attention. Studies have shown that real innovation is this kind of ongoing process, rather than the “flash of insight” concept pushed by patent system supporters.
Of course, when innovation is an ongoing process, patents tend to hold back that process. That’s because they make it so that only one player in the field — who perhaps is not the one best equipped to innovate — gets to run that process. Everyone else is held back. It also slows down the pace of innovation, since without competition, the patent holder has less incentive to keep trying out those new ideas to find what works best. As we’ve learned for years and years, competition breeds innovation — but the patent system is designed to cut out competition for no particular reason.
Defenders of the patent system will often claim that the more socially beneficial result is for competitors to come up with something completely new, rather than building off the work of others. However, there is little evidence to support this particular interpretation. In fact, most research into true innovation shows that it is much more efficient for all parties to have access to as many possible solutions as possible — and holding back those options results in sub-optimal social results.
Yet another new study has shown this to be the case. Some researchers ran a contest of sorts, where they asked various people to submit “programs” in a contest to produce the best results:
A group of researchers set out to answer this question, and published their results in Science last week. To tackle the issue, the researchers set up a computer-based tournament based on Robert Axelrod’s ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ competitions in the late 1970s. In this type of tournament, entrants submit computerized strategies that compete against each other in a virtual world. Individuals, or “agents,” with the most successful strategies survive and reproduce, while less successful strategies die out.
In each round of the social learning tournament, automated agents could choose from 100 behaviors, each of which returned a certain payoff. The payoffs changed over the course of the tournament, simulating changing environmental conditions that might render a behavior more or less useful. In any round, agents could make one of three moves: use a behavior they already knew (Exploit), use asocial learning to test a new behavior by trial-and-error (Innovate), or learn socially by watching a behavior that another agent was performing in that round (Observe). Out of the three possible moves, only Exploit resulted in a payoff; the two learning moves would only return information about how profitable the behavior was in the current environmental conditions. Social learning was especially costly; if Observe was played when no other agent was performing a novel behavior, the agent learned nothing.
The results, however, showed that the runaway winners of the contest were those that used “social learning” the most. In other words, they were the ones who took what, on the face of things, appeared to be the most “costly” move — and focused on what was working best for others and then using it successfully themselves. In other words, yet again, we see that the strategies that make the most sense for the greatest output tend to be those where participants in a market have the ability to copy others. Now, this upsets those who may have come up with the results first, but as other studies have shown, it’s rarely the exclusivity of patents that leads to that invention in the first place. So if you don’t need exclusivity to invent, and a more open solution of copying leads to greater overall output and social benefit… what, exactly, is the reason for creating these kinds of monopolies anyway?