Is Innovation Dwindling in Importance?

Economist cover Jan 10 2013Take a look at the cover story of the January 12 issue of the Economist magazine. Inside, the leading editorial is titled “The Great Innovation Debate.” This refers to a growing belief, among academics and venture capitalists, that anything new that we invent will just not be as important and life-changing as all of the things we’ve already invented. Think of how much the invention of electricity changed our everyday lives. Computers are cool and fun, but no one would argue that they’ve changed the world as much. Think of how much the invention of antibacterial medications has been; we no longer worry about polio or syphilis or tuberculosis. And even before that, think back to the time when cities figured out how to handle urban sanitation, resulting in clean water and a drastic reduction in disease. Compared to all of these, Angry Birds or Windows 8 or the iPhone just don’t seem all that important.

If this is true, it’s a problem because innovation is the driver of productivity increase, and productivity increase is the driver of a higher quality of life.

I was reminded of a 1998 article in MIT’s Technology Review, inspired by John Horgan’s 1997 book The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Horgan’s book, and the magazine article, argued that scientists had already made all of the most important discoveries. We know the basic structure of matter. We know how cells and genes work (at least, the broader outlines). We know the structure of the universe and the cosmos. Horgan’s point was that anything else we discover is just going to be details that fill out the big picture that we already know. I mailed in an objection to this that was published in a later issue: My objection is that Horgan focused on the natural sciences, while our biggest lack of knowledge today is in the social sciences. (This is one of the reasons I chose a career in the social sciences…I thought there was more that remained undiscovered than in physics or biology.)

The Economist rejects the argument that innovation is dwindling, making the counter-argument that “many more brains are at work now than were 100 years ago” and also that communication technology like the Internet makes it possible for all of these people, and their ideas, to come together more effectively. This is the argument that Matt Ridley made in his 2011 book The Rational Optimist; he famously argues that innovation comes when “ideas have sex” and the more ideas, and the more “sex” (idea interchange), the more innovation–and this is made possible by the Internet.

I can see the logic in both sides of the argument. It’s hard to imagine an innovation as important as clean water or electricity or safe surgery. But on the other hand, there were scholars back in 1900 who famously stated that humans had already discovered everything worth discovering. So what’s your opinion on “The great innovation debate”?

Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration

I’ve just read a New York Times article by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s the frustrated cry of a true introvert. Cain is clearly tired of everyone touting the benefits of collaboration; some people, herself included, just want to be left alone. And, she argues, those are the people who really come up with all of the great ideas.

There’s a grain of truth to Cain’s claim: Psychologists who study creativity know that it requires both solitude and collaboration. Exceptional creativity involves a lot of hard work, and that often happens in solitude. But Cain misses the big picture: Researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction, and that’s because breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas. (Matt Ridley famously calls it “ideas having sex.”)

In 2007, my book Group Genius was partly responsible for what Susan Cain calls dismissively “the rise of the new groupthink.” So I feel like I’ve been called out to respond. Yes, solitude plays a role in the creative process, but Cain overstates her case and misrepresents some of the research. Here are five specific examples of misleading or incorrect statements in her article:

1. Cain says that research by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that exceptional creators are more likely to be introverted. Csikszentmihalyi was my graduate advisor, so I know that what his research actually found is that “Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted….[they] exhibit both traits simultaneously.” Reviewing all of the studies of creativity and extroversion using the “five-factor” personality model, most studies don’t show any relation between creativity and either introversion or extraversion. A few studies show a small relation, and for those, it’s always a positive relation between creativity and extraversion. (see my book Explaining Creativity for the details.)

2. Cain argues that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, is a classic introvert and he’s the one who actually invented the Apple personal computer. She grants that Wozniak never would have had the idea if he hadn’t been exchanging ideas with the Homebrew Computer Club, and he knows that Wozniak’s computer never would have been built and sold if it weren’t for his collaboration with Steve Jobs. It’s true that Wozniak had to go home and build the thing alone…but the real creativity came from collaboration.

And the Macintosh computer–which was a much more innovative product, with the graphic user interface that the one we still use today–resulted from Steve Jobs’ networking and idea exchange with Xerox PARC, the lab where the windows-and-mouse technology was first demonstrated. No solitude story there.

3. Cain is critical of the new trend of using collaborative groups in school classrooms. But in the New York Times article, she doesn’t give any reasons to dislike this, and doesn’t cite any research on the topic (maybe she will in the forthcoming book). Collaboration and learning is one of my research topics, so I know that there’s a huge volume of evidence–going back three decades–showing that collaborative interaction enhances learning. Of course, it has to be done in the right way, and no doubt there are teachers who form student groups in ineffective ways, but you can’t base an argument on a few ineffective teachers.

Regarding learning and mastery, Cain cites Anders Ericsson’s expertise research correctly; that research shows it takes 10,000 hours of mostly solitary practice to become an expert. And I too have argued that this is a prerequisite to a creative life. But that’s not where new ideas come from; that’s just the base of knowledge you need before you’re able to play the game, to combine great ideas and to recognize good ideas.

4. Cain argues that the “Coding War Games” study shows that solitary computer programmers perform better than programmers that don’t get any privacy. But I’ve done studies of pair programming–a core technique of the popular approach known as “extreme coding”–and the research convincingly demonstrates that pair programming results in better computer programs.

5. Cain is absolutely right about the research showing that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of solitary people working alone. But there’s an important exception to this research: if the problems are complex, or if they are visual or spatial, then groups usually outperform solo workers. And in most real-world organizations, problems are pretty complex–not the simple word-generation tasks used in brainstorming experiments.

Cain has read a broad range of important research, and she gets some things right. And she’s smart enough to realize that the more defensible position is that you need both solitude and collaboration. But in her desire to elevate the role of solitude, Cain’s article misrepresents the research. And the research has found just the opposite: collaboration is the key to creativity.

There must be a lot of introverts out there, because when I looked at her book on Amazon.com today, it’s one of the top 100 best selling books. Cain’s book will no doubt appeal to those readers who enjoy solitary work, who’ve sat in endless time-wasting meetings, who did a group project in high school with a bunch of slackers…come to think of it, that pretty much describes everyone, including me! But don’t let yourself be misled by your own bad experiences with groups. The science of creativity shows that exceptional, successful creativity depends on groups, networks, and conversation. If you hole up alone at home, I guarantee you will be less creative.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

My blog post is the title of a new book by Matt Ridley. His book has been getting a lot of attention, with high-profile reviews and with a cover article, by him, in the Wall Street Journal’s “Weekend Journal” on Saturday/Sunday May 22-23, 2010, titled “Humans: Why They Triumphed.”

The artwork accompanying the article shows a large light bulb, composed of hundreds of smaller light bulbs, reinforcing Ridley’s key message: innovation and human advancement comes from lots of small ideas, coming together. This is a rather old idea in 2010, with books on this topic extending back at least to Jim Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds and with a more recent flurry of books on how the Internet catalyzes “collective intelligence,” such as Linked (Barabasi), Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Tapscott and Williams), The Starfish and the Spider (Brafman and Beckstrom), and my own book Group Genius. In Group Genius, my central message is that all innovation emerges from a long series of “small sparks” and that the belief in a blinding “flash of genius” is largely a myth.

So, what’s new with Ridley’s book that warrants so much media attention? My copy is still on order, but based on the extensive reviews I’ve read, and on his own WSJ piece, the new portion is Ridley’s emphasis on archeology and the fossil record, to support his claim that human advancement always happens where trade brings together more ideas from more people. (That reminds me of another recent similar book, The Medici Effect, where Johansson calls it “the intersection”.) Ridley argues that the key innovation in history was trade, and when humans started trading about 45,000 years ago, history and cultural change suddenly accelerated.  He rejects previous explanations of this sudden burst that appeal to individual-focused explanations, like a sudden genetic mutation that resulted in greater individual creativity, and argues that individuals didn’t change at all–what changed was social organization.

I agree completely, but that idea isn’t really new either. It’s long been a fundamental tenet of economics that trade makes everyone better off and accelerates innovation.

Ridley’s catchphrase seems to be “ideas having sex,” based on a good analogy with how the evolution of sex resulted in much more adaptive species, because it allowed the exchange of genetic material. But again, that’s not really a new idea; the analogy of human innovation with evolution goes back at least to a famous 1960 article by Donald Campbell.

So in the absence of apparently new discoveries or material, I’m left to conclude that the reason Ridley’s book is getting so much attention must be because it’s very well written, entertaining to read, and does a compelling job of bringing together existing ideas in a new package. And of course, I like the fact that his message is completely consistent with my own research! The book is certainly on my reading list.