A student of innovation, Mikko Ahonen, from the University of Tampere, Finland, is conducting his dissertation research on advancing our understanding of technology brokering. He raises a good point in his blog about where technology brokering–in other words, innovating by recombining existing ideas in new ways and for new audiences–does not explain the innovation process. The danger here, of course, is that a theory that applies everywhere applies nowhere well. But in this case, the question is whether technology brokering explains science. I’ve copied my response below:
I have run into the same questions about whether the processes underlying technology brokering can work outside product development. Namely, how general is the recombinant nature of innovation (the ability to put old ideass together in new and valuable ways) and the ability of people to innovate in thei fields by moving ideas from where they are known to where they are not? Put in these terms, technology brokering seems alive and well in many places where the presumptions of ex nihilo invention and discovery are strong.
Indeed, my reading of cognitive psychologists studying analogical reasoning is that the analogy is not just one way we think, it is the only way we think. We make sense of new experiences only by relating them to our old experiences (or the old experiences of others as shared with us…which is why stories and storytelling is so central to life).
Science is filled with examples of brokering. Coumadin, a successful blood thinner, was adapted from Warfarin, a successful rat poison, which was itself borrowed from a mold in sweet clover that was killing cows in Wisconson. Viagra was a originally developed to treat angina (and now is being explored for cardio-pulmonary indications in children. Indeed, the history of pharma is a history of moving compounds across “disease-worlds.” Only recently has technology given us the hubris to think we can invent new therapeutic molecules.
The real challlenge is social, not theoretical. Science likes politics because politicized diseases or crises can shake loose enormous research grants. But those grants seem to go to the large and established school to be spent in large and established labs focused on large and established research fields. How much is being spent on understanding the next sweet clover mold? And more importantly, how much is being spent to ensure that our understanding of the next sweet clover mold is connected to other fields across “science.”
This is an area where our understanding of the micro-mechanics of innovation (how people come up with new ideas and get them adopted) has enormouse implications for technology and science policy.