Many notable inventions are being inspired by nature’s ingenuity, numerous engineering problems were solved by mimicking the results of the hidden intelligence, products of hundreds of millions years of trial and error. The nature is a testimony to the amazing ability of ordered-chaos to lead to unbelievably innovative solutions, often for nearly unsolvable problems. In this post I’m going to explore the enabling principles of natural innovation.
The traditional problem solving methodology encourages top-down thinking and step-wise design, where analysis and decomposition steps are used to break-down a problem or a system to a set of smaller, simpler sub-problems, which are, in turn, refined and further broken down, until the sub-problems are reduced to basic, atomic and often previously solved units. Over millions of years, the human brain has evolved to become optimized for problem solving, decomposition, analysis and goal setting. This leads to an ineliminable friction whenever we try think against our own (top down, mental) stream.
The phenomenon of chaotic mutations of living organisms is nature’s bottom up design pillar. Counter-intuitively, solutions are waiting for problems. If those are at the right place and time to meet the right problem, the mutated specimens may have the critical slight advantage to become the next step in the species’ evolution.
The bottom up nature of chaotic mutations alone is not sufficient to lead to the plethora of innovation. The survival of the fittest, one of the three pillars of Darwinian evolution – is the balancing top down guiding force. In the insanely dynamic nature of the environment, species must evolve to survive. Then, food-chain dependencies will create a cascade effect, forcing the dependent species to evolve, accelerating the diffusion of natural innovation even further. The fittest, the one which was destined to find the solution to its own existential problem, is more likely to survive, making favorable traits become more common in successive generations.
Metaphorically speaking, a whirlpool of innovation forms when cold top-down design winds collide with hot winds of bottom up opportunities, when diversity is constrained by cruel reality of survival.
Could humanity mimic nature’s hidden intelligence, by creating an environment for accelerated Darwinian processes, mixing the top-down and the bottom-up in the same unique way? What would the benefits, and the challenges be?
While humanity faces grand environmental, social and economical, often existential challenges, governments’ attempts to provide effective solutions fail time after time. Is it worth trying a radically different approach for solving grand challenges? If a time machine existed, and a man from the 70s was teleported to 2012, he would have been surprised by the stagnation in the space program, by the fact that diseases that could be easily treated with antibiotics have become intractable and are making a come back. Governments these days just don’t have incentives like the cold war to fuel ambitious projects like the Apollo program, which gradually makes human space travel a lost art.
Non-profit foundations like The X-Prize competition project started to emerge and play an important role in filling the void the last decade. These projects are funded by the private sector and foster grand challenges that encourage technological development. These initiatives seek the balance between ambitious and lean, between pragmatic and innovative, with the goal of catalyzing radical development that could disrupt the slow pace of progress towards solving the most important problems facing society.
The Ansari X PRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight was the first prize from the foundation. It successfully challenged teams to build private spaceships to open the space frontier. The first part of the Ansari X PRIZE requirements was fulfilled by Mike Melvill on September 29, 2004 in the Burt Rutan designed, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen financed spacecraft SpaceShipOne when Melvill broke the 100-kilometer (62.5 mi) mark, internationally recognized as the boundary of outer space. Brian Binnie completed the second part of the requirements on October 4, 2004. As a result, US$10 million was awarded to the winner, but more than $100 million was invested in new technologies in pursuit of the prize. Today, Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and others are actively creating a personal spaceflight industry [Wikipedia]
Competitions, just like Darwinian evolutionary dynamics, essentially crowd-source innovation. They have the right ingredients for to prosperity of pluralism. The pseudo-chaos created by diversity of approaches, backgrounds and techniques leads to incredible solutions when constrained by a clearly defined goal. This symbiotic relationship exists in the vast majority of innovative eco-systems.
Here are several more examples of eco-systems that demonstrated successful innovation crowd-source:
– The free market – A diversity of business models, technology and marketing strategies, constrained by market demand.
– Wikipedia – millions of authors (having billions of opinions), constrained by an efficient moderation eco-system.
– Kaggle – a platform and a marketplace for data crunching challenges that allows organizations to share their datasets and problems and have it scrutinized by the world’s best data scientists. In exchange for a prize, winning participants provide the algorithms that beat all other methods of solving a data-crunching problem.
– Linux – Thousands of contributors, distributions, implementations, to different problems, constrained by interfaces at integration points. Eric S. Raymond’s observations of the development process of the Linux Kernel, published the book “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, where the fine-balance of top-down and bottom up approaches is describes in great detail.
The web brings new opportunities to scale, accelerate and manage the infinite complexity of innovation by harnessing the extelligence, the wisdom of the crowds.
In the next post we’ll explore this opportunity in detail.