Innovation as a Recombinant Process

"The Second Machine Age" makes a convincing argument that innovation is better thought of as a recombinant process, building on prior ideas.

Photo of Moss Pike
1 1

Written by

In their thought-provoking book The Second Machine Age, Brynjolfsson and McAfee (following the work of other economists) make the case that innovation is best thought of as a recombinant process ultimately putting together pre-existing ideas in novel configurations, echoing the argument that creativity can be thought of as connecting dots that haven't yet been connected. There are certainly "light bulb" moments that produce radically new ideas, but by and large, innovation typically involves "recombining things that already exist" (78).

This idea drives home the point that collaboration and communication are essential in the innovation process. Rather than believing that the innovator is the genius who comes up with novel, earth-shattering ideas, we could instead focus on starting with what we know and building from there as a team. And this is precisely what we're doing here on The Guild, where we're sharing ideas and inspiration, before moving on to the next phase of the design process. If we emphasize that innovation is largely recombinatory, hopefully that lessens the barrier of entry into the design process, since everyone has something to contribute and that our new ideas are only as strong as those on which they're founded.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Joseph Broughton

I've been listening to some of the older TED Radio Hour episodes and ran across this quote from McAfee in his interview on the episode "Do We Need Humans"that reminds me of the need to emphasize innovation in our schools: "Either with mental work or with physical work, if you find yourself following instructions, doing much of the same thing over and over again, that's a job that's squarely in the sites of automation."
Episode link:
Pocket Cast link: