15 Oct 2011

Innovation as Adaptation

Posted by jofr

What are the origins of innovation and creativity? What is the mystery behind the emergence of new companies, new theories, new species, new masterpieces of art? In the language of complex adaptive systems, major evolutionary jumps are equal to the passing of large fitness barriers. As I try to describe in my book and in the wiki, there are at least three different ways to cope with large fitness barriers in evolution, (1) bypass it (2) tunnel through it or (3) overcome it:

  1. to bypass through exaptation: explore a different direction and make a side-leap
  2. to tunnel right through the barrier by borrowing complexity
  3. to wait for a catastrophe, until the barrier is reduced through catastrophic events

Two of them are illustrated in this picture from the book:

To be truly innovative, you must be an optimist, because you must surmont many unsurmountable obstacles: you must go beyond the existing limits of the field. To be innovative in the economy, you must go beyond the limits of traditional markets and discover a new one (or exploit an existing by creative destruction). To be innovative in science, you must go beyond the limits of knowledge. To be innovative in art, you must go beyond the limits of traditional art schools and styles.

To go beyond the existing limits, you must either be really lucky, or try very hard, or both. “Luck favors the prepared” as Louis Pasteur said. Very innovative people often are in an existential crisis, a situation with strong competition or an all-or-nothing situation where the own existence is threatened. For example

  • a startup company which has to make a new innovation or to find a new market in order to survive in the economic world. A startup can lead to the emergence of a new company. If it runs out of money before it finds its product and market it will vanish.
  • a PhD student which has to find a new thesis or a new scientific field in order to survive in the world of science. A PhD student – the scientific startup – can lead to the emergence of a new scientific theory or whole new scientific field, if he manages to publish the right material at the right time. If he fails, he will perish.
  • an artist which has to create a masterpiece or a new style of art in order to survive in the world of entertainment. An art apprentice can lead to the emergence of masterpieces, new schools or styles of art, if he manages to create the right masterpiece at the right time. If he fails, he will hardly manage to live from his art.
  • a fighter which has to find a new way to find fight the enemy in order to survive. It may lead to the emergence of new war forms, or if he fails to the complete annihilation.

In this sense, creation and innovation can be seen as a response to destruction and extinction. Innovation is an adaptation to the permanent threat of extinction . The startup in the innovate or vanish position, the student in the publish or perish stituation, or the artist in the create or cease to exist condition: they all share the desperate need to innovate. The drive to create comes often from the threat of extinction. This means it is also possible to create an atmosphere of competition and terror if you want to encourage innovation, a situation where everyone has constantly to fight for survival. Of course one would not want to do this deliberately. Yet in nature, an “eat or be eaten” situation is not uncommon. As Darwin noticed, there is a constant fight for the survival of the fittest in evolutionary systems.

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3 Responses to “Innovation as Adaptation”

  1. […] people on the edge of survival more innovative than others? We argued earlier that innovation is an adaptation to the permanent threat of extinction. Individuals which are critically endangered or threatened by extinction have a stronger incentive […]

  2. Thanks your book and this article helped me a lot by solving a problem.


    Ary van Baalen

  3. You are welcome. Nice that someone has read the article at all 😉



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