Monday, November 03, 2008

A New Consensus on Innovation?

This year, the journal Nature has been running monthly commentaries on the innovation process. In August, their editorial on the series claims that we have seen a paradigm shift in our understanding of innovation. We've dropped the "linear model" in which knowledge moves from bench to bedside, from basic research to marketplace, in exchange for bundled processes that are non-linear, interactive, multi-directional, discontinuous, and decentralized. Here's their formulation.
A more accurate picture is that of a nonlinear ‘ecosystem’, in which innovation is driven by multiple players, forces and feedback loops working simultaneously. Such an ecosystem cannot be managed — at least, not in the conventional sense of top-down control. But it can be cultivated, in the way that a gardener can try to create the right conditions for plants to grow, while accepting that unforeseen
elements ultimately dictate the outcome.
The explosive idea here is that the actual, non-linear ecosystem "cannot be managed." We do say this regularly, but do we practice it? Is cutting-edge science becoming more democratic, or at least more self-organized? Have our institutions changed to allow this?

I would answer no to all of these. We can see the next paradigm but we haven't moved there. Our practice is in between paradigms. And when we talk about gardeners, we can assume that our metaphors and implied models also have a way to go.

More on this topic soon.


  1. is a blog about nanotech made by studenst with posts about their current program and progress

  2. The unstated question is whether the "linear model" ever existed in research practice or just in the heads of pundits. What Vannevar Bush proposed was funding for research in basic science as part of a collaboration among science, industry, and government. That doesn't make it a "linear" model. I'm not taken with the idea that anything like a sea change is occurring in research innovation, except among pundits.