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Ideas: Emergence, Evolution, Exaptation


Picture courtesy: Miguel Á. Padriñán, Pexels


Emergence is the appearance of collective behaviour. Behaviour of crowds differs from those of the individuals. Flowing water forms eddies. Drops of water do not do that. Ideas have emergent property. Evolution is a change in an organism to adapt to new environments. Exaptation is a word coined by the evolutionary Biologist, Stephen Jay Gould. Human hands evolved to allow grasping tree branches. But hands also found use in handling tools. Feathers evolved to keep the body warm, but later became instrumental to birds’ flight. The part of an organism, which evolves to meet a specific need, may find a completely different function. This is exaptation. Anthony Grayling, a British philosopher [Grayling 2010], says that ideas are the wheels that make the world move. Adam Smith’s ideas on the Division of labour and free markets led to the industrial revolution and capitalism. They invoke strong passions and spark revolutions. Karl Marx’s ideas on the seed of self-destruction in capitalism led to communism and the Soviet revolution. An even more robust idea of individual freedom and free markets killed Communism. Charles Darwin’s idea of adaptation through evolution changed how we now understand living beings. Tim Berners Lee’s idea of a worldwide web connected the entire world in a manner never possible earlier. How do we generate new ideas? Ideas form in the brain. Electrical impulses from the nerve cells called neurons fire when you think. A novel idea is a unique network of neurons firing in close association inside your brain. Kevin Dunbar [1999] investigated the optimum conditions and environments where new ideas get generated. He found that almost all the essential breakthrough ideas happened when people discussed their ideas in meetings and conferences. The network patterns that we form socially, outside the brain, mimic the network patterns inside the human brain. There is a concept called ‘The adjacent possible’. A particular idea will have similar ideas with slight variations in its neighbourhood. This neighbourhood is called the adjacent possible. These variations represent opportunities for the particular idea to expand into new possibilities. The invention of the light bulb is a classic example. In 1840, British scientist Warren de la Rue developed a light bulb using a platinum filament. But the high cost of platinum kept the bulb from becoming a commercial success. Around 40 years later, Thomas Edison developed a cheaper version with Tungsten filament. The boundaries of the adjacent possible grow as you explore them. All new ideas arise from the exploration of the adjacent possible. Each innovation opens up alternative paths to explore. In a discussion, intellectual stimulation promotes the birth of new ideas. The organizational technique for facilitating networking is the “brainstorm” session. Brainstorming opens up the flow of ideas and hunches more than is possible in a regimented workplace meeting. This allows growth of information networks that allow hunches to persist, disperse, and recombine. Where are ideas born? Places where people gather provide environments that stimulate the creation of good ideas. Coffee shops in England inspired the enlightenment of the 17th century. The sidewalk cafes of Paris formed another nucleus. Cities provide a wealth of possibilities and promote exploring novel ways of combining them. They provide environments that connect and remix the most valuable resource: information. The Web is another platform where ideas collide, recombine and allow different disciplines to borrow from one another. In the early days, the accepted view in economic theory was that productivity growth could not be influenced by anything but factors [Jones 2019]. However, the role of ideas and innovation in economic growth has been explicitly brought in by Paul Romer’s [Romer 1990] conceptualization of the endogenous growth theory. Endogenous is something produced or synthesized within the organism or system. The theory propounds that economic growth is propelled primarily by internal, knowledge-derived, and not external forces. The corollary to this statement is that investment in human resources and knowledge determines economic growth. Romer’s work has contributed to the generation of substantive enquiry into the policies that encourage and inhibit new ideas and long-term growth. The importance of Romer’s work is its positioning of how the discovery of new ideas lies at the heart of economic growth (Romer, 1990). There is a fundamental difference between material resources and knowledge resources. Material resources are zero-sum. Knowledge resources are open in principle to an infinite number of people. Knowledge does not diminish with the number of people using it. Ideas can be shared equally in a way that material goods cannot. An increasingly knowledge-based society should have increased levels of economic opportunity. Romer’s insight recognized the difference between the embodiment of ideas such as designs or blueprints and all other goods. As people use material goods, there is less left for other users. The potential scarcity caused by increasing demand lies at the core of economic theory and inspires the basic tenets of welfare economics. Ideas do not get depleted as there are more and more users. Stealing an idea could lead to the creation of newer ideas. Corporations have recognized the importance of ideas. Management of ideas is managing collecting and developing ideas and insights to get the most out of them. This has become an important management function, demanding good strategies. Evaluating and prioritizing ideas is an essential component of idea management. Finally, implementing new ideas is the most challenging aspect of the management of ideas. Melvin Anshen [Anshen 1969] wrote with remarkable foresight that a profound change in top management’s primary task is emerging due to the acceleration of technologies, markets, information systems, and social expectations of business performance. The concerns have shifted from managing physical resources to managing ideas. The fantastic growth of Google, Apple, and Amazon tell us that production factors did not drive it but through the accumulation of new ideas and knowledge. It is instructive to see how Apple is organized for innovation [Podolny and Hansen 2010]. Apple’s strategy is a functional organization where experts lead experts. Apple uses a system of innovation management through a cross-functional Core Team of experts in multiple disciplines. The Core Team structure efficiently achieves deciding on collaboration by breaking down the exclusive barriers prevalent in organizations. Using the cross-functional Core Team approach, teams are staffed with empowered decision-makers jointly accountable for project success. Core Team members have deep functional expertise, understand functional strategies, and know how best to apply them to project-level decisions. Apple has retained its organizational structure despite its multi-fold growth over the last two decades. The approach has delivered novel technologies applicable across diverse product lines. Let me conclude by recalling my experiments with ideas in my career as a plasma physicist. We use a device called plasma torch to create very high temperature flames of plasma. Temperature is as high as ten thousand degrees. It is an electrical arc through which there is a high-speed flow of Nitrogen gas. When the plasma plume from the torch falls on organic waste, it gets converted into gases such as Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen. The combination of these two gases is the SynGas, which can burn. The gas can power internal combustion engines. But if the Torch uses Nitrogen, the Syngas gets mixed up with Nitrogen. Nitrogen has to be removed , because it cannot burn. The separation is a costly process. Our idea was to start the pyrolysis process with Nitrogen, and collect the product gas, cool it and circulate it through the torch. Then further Nitrogen supply can be stopped. Then there is no dilution of the product gas with Nitrogen. This invention made the pyrolysis process more efficient. Also it prevented the nitrogen dilution of the pyrolysis product gas. It also dispensed with the expensive Nitrogen cylinder for the operation of the torch. We got a patent for this, “Plasma Torch with Endogenous Gas Source”. Mathematician Henri Poincaré described the creative process as a collision of ideas rising into consciousness in crowds. Fluid environments where ideas bubble up are where they flourish. So, if we want to build environments that generate good ideas in educational institutions, businesses or governments, we need to promote environments which promote human interaction. This is where new ideas are born and flourish. References Melvin Anshen [1969], The Management of Ideas, Harvard Business Review July 1969 Dunbar, K. (1999), The scientist InVivo: How scientists think and reason in the laboratory. In L. Magnani, N. Nersessian, & P. Thagard (Eds.), Model-based Reasoning in Scientific Discovery. New York, Plenum. Anthony Grayling, 2010, Ideas that Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century, Phoenix Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, [2010] Charles I. Jones, 2019 Scand. J. of Economics 121(3), 859–883, DOI: 10.1111/sjoe.12370 Riverhead Books Joel M. Podolny and Morten T. Hansen, 2020, “How Apple Is Organized for Innovation,” Harvard Business Review Romer, P. M. (1990a), Endogenous Technological Change, Journal of Political Economy 98, S71–S102.

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