Monday, 3 February 2014

18. Invention

In the preceding item I claimed that exploration should feed on experience from exploitation. The wider question, beyond the present scope of innovation, is:

How does pragmatism work? How do ideas arise and change, from action? In an earlier work Learning and innovation in organizations and economies (2000), I proposed a ‘cycle of discovery’. The basic idea, which accords perfectly with pragmatism, is that knowledge develops by applying existing knowledge to new areas. That yields challenges and insights for change.

In a nutshell, the cycle is as follows. In generalization an existing mental scheme or practice is applied to novel contexts. Generalization is needed for four reasons. First, to escape from the existing order in the present area of practice, which presses for conformity. Think of existing ways of thought, technical and legal standards, distribution channels, consumer practices, worker skills, and forms of organization.

Second, generalization is needed to obtain fresh insights into the limitations of existing practice, which has been moulded to what is required in present conditions, or has itself moulded those conditions.

Third, generalization is needed to create pressure for change for the sake of survival. Often novelty does not arise unless needed for survival. Fourth, it is needed to obtain insight into alternatives, encountered in novel contexts of application.

Generalization can be real, as in a new market for an existing product, a new field of application of a technology, or virtual, as in a computer simulation, laboratory experiment, or a thought experiment.

To survive in the new conditions the scheme is differentiated in an attempt to deal with them. For this one taps from existing repertoires of possibilities and capabilities learned from previous experience. If that does not yield survival, one tries to adopt elements of local practices that appear to be successful where one’s own practice fails, in reciprocation.

This yields hybrids that allow experimentation with novel elements to explore their potential, while maintaining the basic logic or design principles of the old practice. One next obtains insight into the obstacles from the old architecture that prevent the full utilization of the potential that novel elements have now shown. This yields indications for more fundamental changes in the architecture, in accommodation.

Next, the new architecture, with old and new elements, is still tentative, requiring much experimentation and subsidiary changes, and elimination of redundancies and inappropriate leftovers from old practice, in a process of consolidation. There is often competition between alternative designs, which mostly results in a dominant design. And next, to get away from that one again needs generalization, and the circle is closed.

One illustration is the following. Before in the car direction indicators with flashing lights were invented, waving a hand indicated direction, as on a bike. From signs at railways one learned that it could be done better with a mechanical hand, without needing an open top or window. In fact, those indicators at first did have the stylised shape of a little hand. The mechanical hand has all the disadvantages of moving parts: in getting stuck, breakage, stalling, rusting, and maintenance. But when also electrical light was inserted the leap was made to using a flashing light instead of moving parts. To distinguish it from basic lighting it had to flash.

Another illustration is that when in the construction of bridges the move was made from wood to iron, use was at first still made of ‘swallow tail’ connections that make sense for wood but not for iron, which can be welded.

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