Combinatorial Innovation

Last week, Kris Jack, Chief Data Scientist, Mendelay and Head of Data Science at RELX, tweeted a link to an article in The Guardian, We are ignoring the new machine age at our peril, by John Naughton, professor of public understanding at the Open University and author of From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know about the Internet. 

While the article focused on how shifts in technology will eliminate a lot of non-routine, white-collar, and blue-collar jobs over the next twenty years, what I found most interesting were the insights about ‘combinatorial’ innovation.

In his article, Naughton refers to a book by W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology, which explores the idea that technology is not linear, but rather combinatorial- driven by the combination of a whole lot of things. Arthur argues that technology ‘builds itself organically from itself’ in ways that resemble chemistry or organic life. And the significant point about combinatorial innovation is it brings about radical discontinuities that nobody could have anticipated.

Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist provides historical context to the topic of combinatorial innovation in a McKinsey Company article, Hal Varian on how the Web challenges managers. Varian talks about how, if you look back in time, you’ll find periods in history where the availability of different component parts enabled innovators to combine or recombine them to create new inventions. “In the 1800s, it was interchangeable parts. In 1920, it was electronics. In the 1970s, it was integrated circuits.”

Examples of combinatorial innovation abound. Here are two. The sewing machine, for example, was a combinatorial innovation set off by the push for interchangeable parts in the late eighteenth century munitions industry. Johannes Gutenberg applied the technology of the screw press that was designed for making wine and reconfigured it with metal type to create the printing press.

Varian goes on to describe that today, we have Internet components–software, protocols, languages, etc.—that are being combined to create totally new innovations. “The great thing about the current period is that component parts are all bits. That means you never run out of them. You can reproduce them, you can duplicate them, you can spread them around the world, and you can have thousands and tens of thousands of innovators combining or recombining the same component parts to create new innovation. So there’s no shortage. There are no inventory delays. It’s a situation where the components are available for everyone, and so we get this tremendous burst of innovation that we’re seeing.”

The self-driving car is a current example of a whole lot of different technologies—digital mapping, GPS, machine learning, developments in laser and infrared sensor technology–coming together to create something truly innovative.

A few common themes emerged as I read about combinatorial innovation from a number of different sources.

Innovation is about creating something from a diverse range of available things

Over and over I read how innovation is about taking existing resources and putting them together to create something new. In her article, Combinatorial Creativity and the Myth of Originality, Maria Popova talks about the building blocks of combinatorial creativity. She says “To create is to combine existing bits of insight, knowledge, ideas, and memories into new material and new interpretations of the world, to connect the seemingly dissociated, to see patterns where others see chaos.”

It is important to note, you have to be alert and aware to see the patterns and possible connections. Maria Popova quotes Brian Eno who advises, “You should stay alert for the moment when a number of things are just ready to collide with one another.”

A free and open exchange of ideas is needed to feed innovation

As Hal Varian infers, combinatorial innovation thrives when ideas are shared freely and openly and ‘components are available for everyone’. This brings up interesting questions. How do we continue to keep the flow of ideas and information open and flowing freely? How do we balance the need to protect intellectual property, proprietary technology, and trade secrets with the need to explore problems with a larger network of minds? How do we create an environment where ‘radical discontinuities that nobody could have anticipated can happen’ can happen?


combinatorial innovation


A growing number of organizations are experimenting with more open models of exchange. Open source software is a great environment for combinatorial innovation where components bump against each other and where every combination opens up the possibility of additional new combinations. Services like Twitter and Flickr are examples of organizations with more open models. Both make their software accessible to programmers inside and outside of their organizations allowing them to put things in the core product together in new and unexpected ways.

Diversity is critical

While creativity and innovation require a great deal of conscious and unconscious processing, much of which we may never fully understand, there are things we can do to optimize our minds and networks of minds for combinatorial innovation.

In the article mentioned above, Popova refers to advice from a speech Ray Bradbury gave at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea in 2001, “Stuff your head with more different things from various fields”. Popova goes on to recommend developing a mental pool of resources made up of information and ideas that are diverse, cross-disciplinary, and wide-ranging so we can put them together in new combinations for new insights and ideas. She uses LEGO as a metaphor, saying if you only have a few LEGO pieces of the same shape and color, what you can create is limited. On the other hand, if you have a whole bunch of LEGOs made up of various sizes, shapes, and colors, you can create an almost infinite number of interesting combinations.


The speed of combinatorial innovation will continue to accelerate in the digital age where new pieces of software can be sent around the world in a matter of seconds and innovators everywhere can combine and recombine this software with other components to make new innovations we could not have dreamed possible just moments before. There are all kinds of ramifications for every person, industry, government and nation—some good, some not so good. Our jobs will be to continue to work for a free exchange of ideas, optimize our minds for combinatorial innovation by constantly exploring a wide range of cross-disciplinary thinking, and engage with the larger network of innovators so, together, we can work to address the challenges and opportunities of the rapidly evolving digital age.