Why degrees of cross-pollination determine the speed of innovation

by Nicolas Gülzow 

Linear growth models for technology are useless. We've spoken before on this blog about why that's the case - usually its because they only describe one-dimensional progress, and not the recombination of ideas through mutual or reverse knowledge flows. In the 20th century we saw the emergence of thousands of new technologies, especially in science-based industries such as aerospace, plastics, personal computers, communication networks and optics. Any investigation of the history of these industries shows they were all based on a relatively small number of early technological breakthroughs; a clear example of exponential growth. 

In this post I want to explore this process in more detail with a view to exploring the new industries of the 21st century. And the question I want to answer is: what is the mechanism that determines the multiplier with which we are growing exponentially? The answer is that the fertility of our breeding ground for innovation depends on the intersections we build between different scientific and creative disciplines. A popular term for this is ‘cross-pollination’ - the recombination of previously unrelated ideas - and what’s interesting is how closely that aligns with other patterns we see in the world. Just as in the floral kingdom, where new forms of life arise from the reception of distantly related seeds or pollen, the majority of breakthroughs in art and science arise from unconventional combinations of concepts that have never met before.

In the last decade, several studies [1] have indicated that cross-pollination leads to concept mobility, which would explain the exponential generation of new ideas we're seeing today. But not every idea is of significant value, and it’s only a tiny handful that actually have the potential to create whole new industries. To put this more simply, the degree of cross-pollination matters. A 2004 Harvard University study for example, looked at more than 17,000 patents to determine how the financial value of an innovation is related to the alignment of participating disciplines. It concluded that the financial value resulting from strong cross-pollination was on average lower than the value that came out of more homogeneous approaches. However the study also showed that the rare breakthroughs achieved by pairing less-aligned disciplines were of unusually high value and superior to the best innovations of conventional efforts.

In other words, when you combine two disciplines that are really different from each other you see more failures, but you also have a higher chance of hitting the jackpot and building a new industry around your discovery. It means that if you’re an individual or organisation looking to innovate then in order to achieve the greatest results you have to leave your comfort zone and connect non-obvious concepts that on the surface seem totally unrelated - even though the average quality might suffer. Professor Lee Fleming, the author of the Harvard study that showed this, calls this approach “going for breakthrough.” 

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the mobility of a concept should be related to its quality and not to its origin. The Nobel Prize for behavioural economics in 2002 for example, demonstrates that cross-pollinating deep but unrelated expertise in disciplines such as psychology and economics is potentially of great value. When this kind of thing works well, experts are more likely to succeed in identifying potentially valuable synergies between disciplines because they understand current obstacles, assumptions and are aware of new discoveries in their field. 

The expected relationship between the value of innovation, degree of cross-pollination and quality of contributing ideas

The expected relationship between the value of innovation, degree of cross-pollination and quality of contributing ideas

But cross-pollination is also risky. Yes, it increases the chance that you will make a huge and important breakthrough, but that possibility is still vanishingly small. The traditional economics profession builds mathematical models on the assumption of rational behaviour while psychologists agree on the fact that people can’t be fully rational because cognitive biases are distorting reality. 99 times out of 100 those assumptions prevent collaborators across these two disciplines from making any significant contribution. 

Where does this all fit in with exponential growth and innovation? Well the reason cross-pollination determines the speed of innovation is not because we come up with more ideas (that’s just an explanation of exponential growth). Only by inventing a new technological field do we accelerate the available options to connect and combine ideas even further. In order to do so we have to cross-pollinate concepts of less similar technological fields and enable radical breakthroughs to arise, which then stimulate the emergence of new technologies and later, entire industries. Giovanni Giorgio Moroder, the 'Godfather of Disco,' pioneered electronic music by introducing digital sounds in the early 70s. He was able to do so thanks to the invention of the digital synthesizer at the intersection between music and computer science. Today, the electronic music industry is worth billions of dollars and Moroder has been immortalised by Daft Punk, who dedicated Giorgio by Moroder on their Grammy Award winning album Random Access Memories to his beginnings. 

This process - the combination of two previously unrelated industries to create a new one - can be better understood when we look at how different stages of strong cross-pollination behave. Take two industries of  the future, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Each is the result of cross-pollination between previously unrelated fields. Biotechnology is based on the combination of biology and organic chemistry, nanotechnology arose at the intersection of material science, electrical engineering and physics. The next round of strong cross-pollination has now yielded the new field of nanobiotechnology.

The key component that separates this nanobiotechnology from nanotechnology and biotechnology is that it combines organic structures with inorganic molecules. Recent innovations in this field have addressed health diagnostics, drug development and drug delivery. In the three last decades biotechnology and nanotechnology have each undergone a dramatic development in the exponential growth of the amount of related scientific publications . But the growth rate for the new field of nanobiotechnology has been even higher. Between 1990 and 2004 the number of patents increased by 900% in biotechnology, 1500% in nanotechnology and an extraordinary 5400% in nanobiotechnology.

Modern culture quite rightly celebrates inventive individuals and innovative organisations because they are bold enough to go for breakthrough and combine unrelated concepts that have never met before. However, in order to do so they need to fail thousands of times. Internalising this mindset is difficult. Humans are by their nature risk-averse, and large bureaucracies even more so. In order to come up with radical innovations that help us overcome the huge challenges facing humanity, we have to understand that the degree of cross-pollination matters, and appreciate that any new idea no matter how crazy, is a step forward. As Thomas Edison - the inventor of two glorious breakthroughs, the long-lasting light bulb and the motion picture camera - once put it,  "I have not failed 10,000 times; I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

References

Grodal, S., & Thoma, G. (2014). Cross-pollination in Science and Technology: Concept mobility in the nanobiotechnology field. Annals of Economics and Statistics/Annales d'Économie et de Statistique, (115-116), 57-80. 

Hargadon, A. & Sutton, R. (1997). Technology Brokering and Innovation in a Product Development Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly (42), 716-749.

Hargadon, A. (2003). How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about how Companies Innovate: Harvard Business Press.