Growth Requires Diversity and Quantity of Ideas

Whether you look at the work of Steve Johnson, Kevin Ashton, Chris Clearfield and AndrĂ¡s Tilcsik, or Nina Evans and James Price, we get better ideas – and solutions – when we have greater diversity in cultural and professional experiences.

One of my favourite quotes that I often share with teams comes from Steve Johnson and his work looking at the history of innovation dating back to Charles Darwin:

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation thinking big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.

Where Good Ideas Cone From – The Natural History of Innovation 2010

Interestingly my assumption was that getting more ideas would naturally occur from greater diversity including culture, professional experiences, gender, etc. While yes, that’s true it doesn’t necessarily predict a greater number of ideas over a longer period of time.

I’ve recently learned that missing variable of quantity could be an important factor for getting business and society towards better solutions for future generations.

About two years ago I picked up and devoured the 2014 publication “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. While there were many insights shared there was a passage quoting the now 2018 Nobel Prize recipient in economics, Paul Romer that stood out; specifically his suggestion of a ‘new growth’ theory.

Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that make them more valuable … Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new … ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new … ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many new ideas remain to be discovered… Possibilities do not merely add up; they multiply.

…Perhaps the most important ideas of all are meta-ideas – ideas about how to support the production and transmission of other ideas. …There are…two safe predictions. First, the country that takes the lead in the twenty-first century will be the one that implements innovation that more effectively supports the production of new ideas in the private sector. Second, new meta-ideas of this kind will be found.

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies 2014 By Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

The notion of a recombinant theory suggests the arguments we are engaging in daily around the negative stereotypes of each generation misses the mark entirely for a better society; and not just from a moral or ethical perspective.

Rather, the greater number of ideas we consider, in addition to the diversity of people from which we ask to consider solutions, will ultimately lead to innovation that steps the whole of society towards an improved state of being.

If we focus on attitudes and behaviours we can’t understand from each generation – because we lack that experience and therefore their specific perspectives – we will miss out on a multiplicity of innovative ideas, as Romer suggests.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, as I hadn’t heard of Paul Romer or his work back then, I had proposed one way to implement his new growth theory. Specifically, I addressed generational arguments that I’ve seen prevent more ideas from being considered both as a consultant and employee over the past two decades. The idea was simple:

Approach building any solution for your grandchildren, regardless of your generation. In essence, consider all outcomes to be placed in a distant future, that no longer includes you.

If we remove the “us” versus “them” mentality from the timeline of our own existence, that could be the foundation for an intellectual conversation that consistently focuses on benevolence and global progress, rather than anxiety and malice.

Field Notes

I believe we must address technology from different mindsets and learnings outside of our own. We could then be in a position to explain ideas that are new from a shared understanding.

Far too often we argue for our approach and the need to follow our process to demonstrate outcomes that are of value to “us”. With so many parts being thrown on the table the need to communicate the complex simply across many perspectives, has never been more important.

History has also shown as we’ve advanced our understanding of science – or truth – there had been disagreement amongst other disciplines. It is through these learnings that we’ve been able to ask better questions allowing us to test a greater number hypothesis, for example:

[In 1958] an investigator who hoped to learn something about what scientists took the atomic theory to be asked a distinguished physicist and an eminent chemist whether a single atom of helium was or was not a molecule. Both answered without hesitation, but their anwers were not the same. For the chemist the atom of helium was a molecule because it behaved like one with respect to the Kinetic theory of gases. For the Physicist, on the other hand, the helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum… Their experience in problem-solving told them what a molecule must be. Undoubtedly their experiences had had much in common, but they did not, in this case tell the two specialists the same thing.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – 4th Edition. by Thomas S. Kuhn 2012

In the video that follows, Paul dives deeper into new growth theory sharing concepts such as “us” vs “them” in considering how we increase possibilities while the population of the world shrinks.

Paul M. Romer lecture “On the Possibility of Progress” December 2018 at the Aula Magna, Stockholm