Combinatorial Knowledge Is The Key To Many Innovations – Find Out How To Apply It

In 2007, Steve Jobs got on stage to reveal a device which would go on to revolutionize the way we work in the world today. The device in question is the iPhone and it ushered in the era of the smartphone.

Ever the showman, Jobs gave a riveting speech. There is one part that really stands out and describes the essence of what the iPhone is.

An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator. An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator. An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator. Do you get it? These are not three separated devices. This is one device, and we are calling it iPhone.

He mentioned three things: an iPod, a phone, and an internet mobile communicator. All of these things existed on the market when the iPhone came out. However each one was its own device.

What did Jobs and Apple do? They combined them and put them on one device!

This is what combinatorial knowledge is all about. You take different already existing pieces and combine them together to make something new. This something new can be another piece of knowledge, or a new device or anything else.

It is very, very hard to be truly original and come up with something totally new, something that has never existed before and which truly changes our understanding of the world. For the most part, to do that, you truly need to dedicate a lot of time to your field. This is what Albert Einstein did with his theory of relativity.

However, if you dig deeper, you will notice that even Einstein used some previously discovered knowledge, which served as inputs. He then combined it with his own things. James Hutton, when coming up with his theories on geology, also combined different strands of knowledge that were floating around in his time.

Combinations of knowledge from different sources is the key to new knowledge. It is also the key to new revolutionary devices like the iPhone.

An article in “Wired” magazine describes how Jobs came up with the idea:

In 2002, shortly after the first iPod was released, Jobs started thinking about developing a phone. He saw millions of Americans lugging separate phones, BlackBerrys, and — now — MP3 players; naturally, consumers would prefer just one device. He also saw a future in which cell phones and mobile email devices would amass ever more features, eventually challenging the iPod’s dominance as a music player. To protect his new product line, Jobs knew he would eventually need to venture into the wireless world.

The article goes on to list some of the challenges that such a product would have to overcome:

If the idea was obvious, so were the obstacles. Data networks were sluggish and not ready for a full-blown handheld Internet device. An iPhone would require Apple to create a completely new operating system; the iPod’s OS wasn’t sophisticated enough to manage complicated networking or graphics, and even a scaled-down version of OS X would be too much for a cell phone chip to handle. Apple would be facing strong competition, too: In 2003, consumers had flocked to the Palm Treo 600, which merged a phone, PDA, and BlackBerry into one slick package. That proved there was demand for a so-called convergence device, but it also raised the bar for Apple’s engineers.

These challenges lay in vastly different fields, not only with the technology, but also the way the wireless industry was structured and the business models. In order to make the iPhone a success, all these things would have to be pulled together.

Compare this description of what Steve Jobs (and his Apple team) did, and what Johannes Guttenberg did when coming up with his printing press. A passage in Samuel Arbesman’s “The Half-life of Facts” describes the process:

It turns out that the printing press is far from simple. The technological innovations that Gutenberg developed were much more than the modification of a wine press and the addition of the idea of movable type. Gutenberg combined and extended a whole host of technologies and innovations from an astonishing number of areas, and that is what made his work so powerful.

He used metallurgical developments to create metal type that not only had a consistent look (Gutenberg insisted on this), but type that could be easily cast, allowing whole pages to be printed simply at once. He used chemical innovations to create a better ink than had ever been used before in printing.

Gutenberg even exploited the concept of the division of labor by employing a large team of workers, many of whom were illiterate, to churn out books at a rate never before seen in history. And he even employed elegant error-checking mechanisms to ensure that the type was always set properly: There was a straight line on one side of each piece of type so that the workers could see at a glance whether any letters had been set upside down.

Only by having the combined knowledge of all of these technologies does the printing press become possible and cost-effective.

Just like Steve Jobs had to combine different elements when coming up with the iPhone, Johannes Guttenberg had to do something similar when he came up with the printing press. If you look at other types of inventions that revolutionized our world, you will most likely see a similar process at play.

Look at Walt Disney. Everyone now thinks of him as this great animator. However his genius did not lay with his drawing skills. In fact, his drawing skills were very quite average. Have a look at the first Mickey Mouse cartoon:

What made Walt Disney such a success was the fact that he could do a lot of other things too. Instead, he described himself as a creative catalyst, a bee that goes from one plant to another to gather pollen and pollinate other plants.

A quote from Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s DNA” has a good summary of Disney’s combinatorial skills:

Not only did Disney spark others’ideas, he sparked his own as well by putting himself at the intersection of others experiences. Over time, Disney’s associational insights—including a string of industry firsts such as joining animation with full-length movies and putting themes into amusement parks— changed the face of entertainment.

The key to developing something unique, something revolutionary, is sometimes only a question of having varied inspirations, and being able to put them together in a unique way.

For example, what do academic citations and web search have to do with each other? Think about it.

What if I told you that this was the combination at the heart of Google’s first search algorithm. Larry Page was a PhD student and he had to write papers and be cited as part of his research. Basically the way you get ahead in the academic world (whether as a PhD student or professor) is by the amount of citations you get. The more citations you have, the more successful you are.

On the web, you have a myriad of web pages, some of them linking to other pages. What are the most relevant pages that you should view for a given search term? Probably the one that gets linked to the most for that term.

Page had this insight on the basis of observing how academic citations lead to rankings of scholars. He made the equation citations = links in his head and the rest is history.

The Page Rank mechanism that he and Sergey Bryn developed used this as the basis of the Google search engine. Basically, the web page that has more links to it, is the more relevant one and should appear higher in the search.

You see how different types of elements, analogies and other things can be combined in order to come up with something new? However, how do you get the skills to be able to do that? Let’s have a look:

Read the continuation of this article. The next part covers some things that you can do to boost your combinatorial skills:
Find Out How To Get Combinatorial And Associative Skills And Come Up With Great Ideas

Read More:
Return of the Renaissance Man: The future belongs to expert-generalists

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