Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Innovation and Philosophy

MIAMI – Is it possible to learn to innovate? Is innovation something that can be taught at school?

After reading literature by some of the world’s leading experts on innovation – Clayton Christensen, Henry Chesbrough, John Kao, James Andrew, and Harold Sirkin – I was fascinated, but, alas, also frustrated. Innovation is the production of new knowledge that generates value. It is about fresh ideas that give rise to novel products, services, and processes, new management methods, and original designs and inventions that generate greater profits for firms, regions and countries.

Most experts agree that there are no ready-made formulas or recipes for how to innovate. But is it possible to create the appropriate conditions – to filter ideas and execute plans, and thus to facilitate creativity – under which innovation may flourish?

Managers can perhaps be taught how to nurture innovation by creating an environment that stimulates and encourages individual freedom, creativity, and constructive criticism.  Innovation is more likely where it is possible to defy restrictions and authority; where individuals and groups are allowed to ignore conventions; where a mixing of ideas, people, and cultures is permitted and stimulated; and where management techniques enable firms and industries to acknowledge, identify, and learn from errors as quickly as possible.

Above all, innovation will blossom wherever it is recognized that innovation must be open to the physical world and to the world of ideas, and that, because no firm, no process, and no invention has a guaranteed future, everyone should be prepared for uncertainty. Innovation may increase even more when firms and managers realize that even the most successful firms – those that “have done everything right” – may languish and disappear. In brief, innovation will only truly take off with the understanding that the world is rapidly changing, extremely dynamic and volatile, and that the future is unpredictable.

These are great ideas, but as I went through these texts I found them to be rather familiar sounding – I had the feeling that somehow and somewhere I had already studied them. I soon realized that these clever ideas had already been developed by the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of science. Indeed, innovation is simply a subset of scientific knowledge.

According to the school of rational criticism, when existing theories can neither explain nor solve current problems, the formulation of new hypotheses – and thus new scientific knowledge – is, like innovation, more likely to flourish when constructive criticism is openly allowed and encouraged. Here, too, the formulation of new ideas and hypotheses quite often takes place at a far remove from the authority of experts, because experts, like business managers, often become prisoners of their specializations and backgrounds.

Scientific knowledge is more likely to emerge in environments where it is accepted that there are no prescribed or logical methods for formulating hypotheses; that they may be the result of sudden inspiration; or that they may come from dreams, from other disciplines, or from people that belong to different professions or have different backgrounds.

Once a plausible hypothesis is formulated, it must be tested against all existing theories and against all available experience and information. It has to be subject to open criticism from all directions, and only if it survives these tests and criticisms may it be adopted as tentative and conjectural new knowledge. Science and knowledge are made up not of winners, but of survivors of continuous and systematic efforts to refute. Theories are never certain and must always be prepared for an uncertain future. Or, as Karl Popper put it, truth is never definitive and error is always probable.

No book on innovation that I have read makes the connection between innovation and the theory of knowledge and philosophy of science. This is unfortunate, because the theories of innovation may be subject to all the questions, conjectures, and answers that these disciplines have developed with respect to scientific knowledge. Should business administration students and future business managers immerse themselves in the philosophy of science, they would not only become more knowledgeable and have greater respect for science; they might also become more rigorous and more competent, have greater respect for other disciplines, and be more humble.

At the same time, philosophy professors and students might also profit from the questions that challenge firms and industries. They might broaden their scope and find that they, too, can contribute to the productivity of firms, industries, and the economy in general. But it is past time that some basic principles in the theory of knowledge and of philosophy of science be introduced into schools of business administration.

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  1. CommentedPlamen Shalafov

    "No book on innovation that I have read makes the connection between innovation and the theory of knowledge and philosophy of science."

    I would refer to the books of Nassim Taleb as an example, both "The Black Swan" and "Antifragile". He cites a handful of thinkers who do make this connection in their works.

  2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    What is neither a conservative approach nor disappointing is the use of a quadratic qualia system using a diagram similar to the one familiar in mathematics by Descartes. As might be observed, the opposite of Category A (field A or ++) is Category C (field C or --); the opposite of Category B (field -+) is Category D (field +-).

    The use of this system may be demonstrated shortly and sweetly, especially without invoking competition or numbers. Every variable considered is reduced to a category, and must consist of an exclusive quality, defined as a quality that has an opposite. Axis A-C and Axis B-D are then set to be opposites, one (the first) being a subject axis, and the second a context axis.

    In one example, Digital-Watch (two variables, which we will treat as not opposite, and hence the basis for two further opposites) reduces to Math-Time. Math-NonMath becomes one axis, and Time-Immortal becomes another axis. Here the possible comparisons are not between opposites, because this would be contradictory, but between non-opposites. However, multiple non-opposites can be combined. The result is two ideas: [1] Immortal Math, Time for Non-Math is one set, and [2] Immortal Non-Math, Time for Math is another set.

    This may seem useless at first, until the analogy of the digital watch is introduced. [1] Immortal Math refers to the function of the watch (originally a digital display), suggesting a possibility of more accurate displays, called immortal displays, such as a Subliminal Watch, a Wireless Watch, or a Health Watch, or some combination of these. [2] Non-math is originally a reference to the opposite of the display, but here could mean an opposite category of watch function, such as a Mechanical Watch (a watch that serves as a tool rather than a watch), a Kinetic Watch (a watch with an aesthetic, musical, or game function), or a Self-Winding Watch. [3] Immortal non-math refers originally to the pure opposite of the digital watch, and occurs at stage three to inspire creativity. What might be considered is a watch (the base function) upon which time has operated, instead of one that operates time by itself. In this case, good solutions might be a Time Sculpture, a Screen Saver, or a watch that operates by changing shape or acquiring physical rather than linguistic marks. For example, a watch that appeals to emotions, or a watch that depicts things that happen during that time of day. [4] Time for math returns the categorical puzzle box to the original position, concerned with what the watch already is. Essentially, any of the above-mentioned types of watches and watch functions might be applied to the original design. The key insight is that there is a direct variable-to-variable correlation. For example, if we want to depict storm clouds on the watch on a screen, the storm clouds must relate to one of the two original elements: time or math (the name of this category). For example, the storm clouds could be a number system, or the storm clouds could rain when it is time for an appointment, etc.

    I think that clarifies the potential importance of categorical knowledge in inspiring innovation and design. More about this in my book, The Dimensional Philosopher's Toolkit (2013), which explains the method of categorical deduction in detail, with examples of advanced methods and variations.

    1. CommentedNathan Coppedge

      Another simpler approach to the digital watch example is to interpret Math-Time directly, producing 'time displayed as mathematics' or 'chronology that obeys math functions'.