Good Ideas Come From Sharing, Random Collisions And Openness, Not Hoarding And Bursts Of Inspiration
from the once-again dept
This is a point that we’ve been making for years (and often highlighting the research that proves this), but innovation and good ideas tend not to come from the proverbial “spark of genius.” Study after study after study has shown that’s almost never the case. Almost all good ideas come from people building on the works of others, with a minor tweak here or there, or a random decision based on a suggestion from someone new, after an idea percolates for months or years. The more open systems are to sharing ideas and spreading information and allowing those collisions to happen, the more likely that new good ideas and new innovations occur. That’s why it’s so harmful that today’s intellectual property systems are built on the false assumption that innovation really does happen through that “spark of genius.”
Entrepreneur and author Steven Johnson is about to come out with a new book on this particular topic, Where Good Ideas Come From and has been writing and speaking about some of what’s in the book — which highlights these same points. People have been submitting both his recent TED talk and his recent WSJ piece that makes these points clear:
The key thing is to allow those hunches to connect with other people’s hunches. That’s what often happens. You have half of an idea and someone else has the other half, and if you’re in the right environment, they turn into something larger than the sum of their parts. So, in a sense, we often talk about the value of protecting intellectual property. You know, building barricades, having secretive R&D labs, patenting everything that we have, so that those ideas will ‘remain valuable’ and people will be incentivized to come up with more ideas. But I think there’s a case to be made that we should spend at least as much time, if not more, valuing the premise of connecting ideas and not just protecting them.
In the WSJ piece, he highlights an example of this in action:
Earlier this year, Nike announced a new Web-based marketplace it calls the GreenXchange, where it has publicly released more than 400 of its patents that involve environmentally friendly materials or technologies. The marketplace is a kind of hybrid of commercial self-interest and civic good. This makes it possible for outside firms to improve on those innovations, creating new value that Nike might ultimately be able to put to use itself in its own products.
In a sense, Nike is widening the network of minds who are actively thinking about how to make its ideas more useful, without adding any more employees. But some of its innovations might well turn out to be advantageous to industries or markets in which it has no competitive involvement whatsoever. By keeping its eco-friendly ideas behind a veil of secrecy, Nike was holding back ideas that might, in another context, contribute to a sustainable future–without any real commercial justification.
Of course, I think an even better example is the recent research on Alzheimer’s that really only took off when everyone involved opened up their data and agreed to avoid patents. Or, how about the research on the human genome that compared patented and public domain gene research, and showed that the patents limited commercial viability. But when the genes were opened up to the public, much more value came out of it. The more you look, the more you find these results pretty much everywhere you look. And it’s nearly impossible to find any evidence to support the idea of a “flash of genius” for key innovations in history. In fact, almost every key innovation in history has been shown to have come about to multiple people at once, as ideas are shared and the general progress of knowledge and innovation pushes forward.
This is important if you believe and support innovation. The fact that our entire regulatory system for innovation is based on a disproved theory that makes innovation more difficult should be seen as a serious problem and one worth fixing as quickly as possible.