Exploring the Adjacent Possible

In 1926 Nikola Tesla made an astonishing prediction. Speaking with Colliers magazine, the inventor foresaw a future1 where people would be able to communicate with each other instantaneously and irrespective of distance. A person would be able to see and hear another individual on the other side of the planet as if they were standing face-to-face. All of this would be made possible through a device that might be small in enough to fit in a man’s vest pocket.

Tesla had effectively imagined a modern smartphone. It was a remarkable conceptual leap, but even an individual as brilliant Nikola Tesla couldn’t begin to design the device he had described. The technologies that would eventually make smartphones a possibility, such as silicon transistors, microchips, and rechargeable batteries, had themselves not yet been invented. Tesla’s idea was so far ahead of its time that it could not be made into a physical reality during his lifetime. The smartphone would be a product of the digital age, first showcased2 by IBM in 1992.

While a brilliant individual such as Tesla can occasionally conceive of an idea that is well ahead of its time, sometimes it seems that an idea’s time has very much come. This can be seen through a curious phenomenon in the history of science and innovation whereby the same invention or idea is being explored more or less simultaneously by two or more individuals.

Great Minds Think Alike!

Alexander Graham Bell is usually remembered as the inventor of the telephone, but there are at least two other serious claimants. One of these, Antonio Meucci, was an inventor from Florence, too impoverished to file a patent. The third contender, Elisha Gray, did apply for a patent but lost out to Bell by a matter of hours.

The question of which of these men was truly the first to invent the telephone is still a matter of some controversy3, and the waters are muddied still further by claims that Bell may have stolen his design. However, this example of simultaneous invention was by no means an isolated incident. The radio, steam engine, electrical telegraph, vacuum tube, jet engine, and a good deal else besides, were all independently invented, usually with the inventors concerned completely unaware that anybody else was following a similar line of thought.

In 1922 William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas published an essay4 in which they identified 148 instances of these simultaneous inventions, or “multiples” as they are also known. With multiples occurring with remarkable frequency throughout history, it seems that some force other than mere chance must be at play. A fascinating explanation, as suggested by Steven Johnson5 in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, is that of the ‘adjacent possible’.

One Thing Leads to Anotherf Johnson saw that the theory could be applied just as effectively to scientific progress, and he described it as follows:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Each invention and discovery opens up the way for new possibilities which had not existed before. To take just one of countless possible examples, the invention of vulcanised rubber (another simultaneous invention), placed the invention of the rubber tyre, amongst other things, within the adjacent possible. Rubber tyres in turn helped to open the way to the invention of bicycles and the motor car. While there are occasional dead ends, such as the insanely dangerous rocket-powered aircraft deployed by Germany during World War Two, successful inventions and discoveries almost invariably bring yet more innovations within the realms of the adjacent possible.

Johnson uses the analogy of exploring a vast building to help explain the concept. Each room within Johnson’s building contains several doors, and each of these doors represents another invention or discovery. As a door is unlocked and walked through, it too will lead into yet another room containing yet more doors and still more possibilities. As new inventions and discoveries open up new realms in the adjacent possible, inventors, engineers, and scientists begin to explore that space. It’s not surprising that they frequently find themselves thinking along similar lines.

The lesson for innovators is that there is no time to lose. No matter how brilliant or original an idea might appear to be, history suggests that the possibility it might just have occurred to somebody else cannot be easily dismissed.

 

1-http://www.tfcbooks.com/tesla/1926-01-30.htm

2-http://time.com/3137005/first-smartphone-ibm-simon/

3-http://oldphone.net/who-invented-the-worlds-first-telephone/

4-https://archive.org/stream/jstor-2142320/2142320_djvu.txt

5-http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from?language=en

6 – https://www.edge.org/conversation/stuart_a_kauffman-the-adjacent-possible

 

 

 

Innovation Matters

block buster netflix innovation

Big business spends big money on innovation. They do so with good reason. The world is changing, and at a faster rate than ever before, so any organisation that fails to keep pace risks becoming obsolete. History has shown that even the biggest corporations can fail, but organisations that place a high value on innovation will always be best placed to adapt and thrive.

At first glance it might seem as though established companies with big research and development budgets would enjoy every advantage over a startup with limited capital. However, businesses, like people, can become set in their ways. While startups tend to embrace innovation and risk in order to succeed, for established organisations there can be a temptation to resist change and rely on tried and tested methods. The danger is that in a rapidly changing world these methods probably won’t work forever.

Despite the disparity in resources, it’s quite possible for an innovative startup on a limited budget to topple an established, but complacent, giant. The case of Netflix and Blockbuster is just one of several recent examples, but it’s certainly worthy of a closer look.

Blockbuster was a corporate titan, a household name, and at its peak had a market value of $5 billion. Its business model relied on two main streams of income: charging for rental of videos and DVDs and fines for anybody who failed to return their rentals on time. This had proven to be so successful that Blockbuster saw little reason to change, even when the world around them did.

In 1997 Reed Hastings founded Netflix. He’d been inspired to do so after being hit with a $40 Blockbuster fine and reasoned that he couldn’t be alone in being annoyed with fines that sometimes exceeded the purchase cost of the DVD. With Netflix there would be no late fees. Customers would pay a monthly subscription and receive their rental DVDs in the post. They could then keep them for as long as they wanted, but they would only be able to receive new titles when they returned their old ones.

It’s worth noting simply adopting a new business model won’t be an eligible activity to make a claim although the development of the technology to facilitate the change would be. Read more about the process…

It might have been a simple idea, but it proved to be a brilliant one. Blockbuster should have realised that Hastings’ innovation was a game-changer, but they were too wedded to their existing business model to react effectively. Blockbuster’s decision-makers stuck with what they knew. They made the mistake of assuming that if their business model had worked in the past, then it would continue to do so indefinitely.

Blockbuster still had an opportunity to steal a march on their upstart rival. Improvements in internet connectivity made the concept of mailing DVDs to customers obsolete. While some technological advances are sudden and unexpected, this one wasn’t. Both Netflix and Blockbuster had foreseen that the day was approaching when it would be possible to stream films directly to customers’ computers and televisions. Netflix, with their culture of innovation, met the challenge and launched their streaming service in 2007. Blockbuster, with a philosophy still closely wedded to the increasingly outmoded model of brick and mortar rental outlets, lagged well behind and didn’t manage to launch their own streaming service until 2011. By then it was already too late, and Blockbuster would become one of the most high-profile business casualties of recent times.

For established organisations the Blockbuster story is a cautionary tale, but there are valuable lessons that can be learned.  While Blockbuster made a good many mistakes, not least passing up the opportunity to purchase Netflix for just $50 million in 2000, the underlying cause of the company’s failure can be attributed to a failure to innovate. Blockbuster became a dinosaur; it had been successful for years, but when the Netflix comet struck it failed to adapt quickly enough and as a result it became extinct.

While the future is notoriously difficult to predict, it’s safe to assume that revolutionary technology will change the world in ways we still can’t even imagine. If the law of accelerating returns holds true, then the rate of progress is set to increase exponentially. In such a rapidly changing world it would be more important than ever for organisations to adapt and reinvent themselves in order to survive. A culture of innovation would be amongst the most valuable assets any organisation could possess.