Saturday, May 24, 2008

Beyond Innovation

By Simon Jones, Director, Human-Computer Studies Laboratory, University of Amsterdam


In a few short years innovation has moved from being the domain of wild-haired creatives into an effective business process that acts as one of the levers for extracting value [1]. At this point it is timely to pause and consider ‘what’s next?’ After all, the global environment continues to get more complex, competition gets tougher and the demands of customers increasingly sophisticated. How can countries, regions, cities, private and public sector organizations respond to this challenge? How can they succeed in a marketplace where innovation is an established technique, widely deployed? How do we reach way beyond what is possible and proceed as though it could be? In short: in order to maintain competitive advantage, what comes after innovation?

This article looks at the next wave of change for organizational and individual creativity. It argues that to thrive in the non-linear, quixotic, accelerating world we live in the creative response has to evolve beyond systematic processes of innovation and become spontaneous, volatile, impulsive and serendipitous. In short, we need to be instinctive.

It seems paradoxical, perhaps even reckless to suggest the next competitive edge will arise from preferring instinctive action to formal process. However, there are a number of existing cases where doing precisely that has been the best route to higher performance.

Innovation Today

Innovation is the act of connecting human creativity into a supply chain. Sometimes it is connected into an existing supply chain and sometimes it creates an entirely new supply chain. Many organizations have recognized the central role of innovation as a means of extracting maximum value from assets old and new. Indeed, many companies, cities and regions will claim to have a culture of innovation and methods plus tools and techniques for innovating. As such innovation is becoming a systematic process for creating, managing and deploying human creativity [2]. Contemporary European economies see innovation as a main component of maintaining economic success and ensuring future prosperity for their people. However, the globalised nature of business means that the emerging economies of Asia and beyond are similarly adopting and adapting innovation practices as they too seek to climb the added-value ladder. If the developed economies of Europe are to maintain their competitive advantage just having an innovation system will not be enough, they will have to accept that their competitors can deploy innovation strategies at least as effectively, just for example, as they do today with quality systems. To flourish in the future Europe needs to master the skill sets that lie beyond innovation.

Three Cases of Instinct.


Manned flight has been possible for just over 100 years. In that time, engineers and scientists focused on aerodynamics to develop smooth, stable flying platforms. The creation of such aeroplanes has had a transformative effect on our lives, of that there’s no doubt. Aeronautical engineering developed rich and sophisticated theories and models about the behaviour of airplanes. A key element of any aeroplane is its control. The ability to fly straight and steady under differing conditions makes for a plane easy to manage and generally safe and sound. However, where aeroplanes need to out-perform each other, such characteristics are disadvantageous. In the extreme case of military fighter aircraft, airframes which are inherently aerodynamically unstable are not only desirable but offer the best opportunity for surviving a dog fight [3]. In pursuit of this goal, aircraft designers have rejected much of traditional airframe design and wilfully create planes which left unmanaged will hurl themselves into pieces. However by harnessing these designs to appropriate sensor, actuator and control systems, successful flight is possible by continually adjusting the system to correct the instability when needed but permits such instability when the resulting changes deliver enhanced manoeuvrability.


In the mid 1950s, Ornette Coleman produced his albums ‘Something Else’ and ‘Tomorrow is the Question’. These are generally considered to be among the first Avant Jazz (also known as Avant-Garde Jazz or Free Jazz). Ornette and others like him found accepted Jazz styles to constrain not to liberate him. Avant Jazz uses many Jazz idioms, but the role and rules of composition are considerably weakened. Avant Jazz emphasizes the role of improvisation and has few or no pre-composed elements [4]. In the last 50 years this approach has evolved considerably and more structured and compositionally influenced forms have also emerged [5]. Nonetheless the underlying recognition is that above and beyond a certain point structure and process inhibits and it is only by wilfully freeing oneself of these things is further progress possible.

The Game of Life

The Game of Life [6] is a well known computer simulation where a large square of cells, can be either black or white. Cells have a rule to decide whether they change colour and this is usually decided on the basis of the colours of the neighbours. The simplest version checks what colour the majority of the neighbours have and changes the cell colour accordingly. It’s a lot of fun to observe and can create a series of remarkably attractive pictures and animations. However it also has many important practical applications. The Game of Life is one representative of a class of systems known as cellular automaton (CA) they turn out to be powerful tools for the analysis of complex systems including encryption and many natural systems. However they operate in a very precise way. All cells have the same rules to obey and all cells update themselves at the same time. As a result of these restrictions many important problems, especially those that model living cells or the phenomena of complex groups are not easily addressed by CA’s. Moreover, the constraints on their behaviour are intrinsically unrepresentative of real cellular systems. Researchers have considered eliminating or modifying these constraints and proposed asynchronous cellular automaton (also referred to as stochastic or probabilistic cellular automaton) [7]. These devices still change state as a basis of neighbour information but do so at a time of their own choosing and with a certain probability of a change occurring. Such systems are far harder to analyse and control. Sometimes they fail to do anything useful and rapidly get stuck in a single state or oscillate aimlessly around a few patterns. However it has also been discovered that with suitable rules and suitable starting conditions asynchronous cellular automaton can not only solve problems faster and quicker that regular CA’s but also solve complex problems that regular CA’s simply can’t.


If we look at the three diverse examples above, there are a number of common factors which point us in the direction of the post-innovation landscape.

  • They have moved from an environment of a small number of cohesive macro-rules to one with many overlapping and conflicting micro-rules

  • The participants have a very high level of skill and experience in the domain

  • The overall control system intervenes very frequently but each change is relatively small
From Macro-rules to Micro-rules

This seems to be one of the characteristics of the post-innovation landscape. Unstable aircraft are more manoeuvrable than stable ones. The well established equations and design principles of aerodynamics have been wilfully ignored to create a structure where instability of the airframe is maximised. The elements of the airframe fight against each other and together do not form a system optimized for airborne transport. In Avant-Jazz the well established compositional techniques, timing, tonal forms, melody and rhythm have been disregarded. The sound produced however is not random, each of the notes, phrases and forms have specific musical intent, it is the rules that produce songs and melodies that have been discarded. In cellular automata systems with a single or a few update rules, they are now superceded by devices where each cell has its own rule and conformance to those rules varies according to time, context or chance.

To use a language metaphor, in all these 3 cases, the established ‘grammar’ of the system has been replaced by something else but the individual sounds, formants or syllables are redeployed not abolished.

High-Level of Skill

One of the advantages of innovation practices is that it deskills the process to make it accessible to many people. However in these examples of a post-innovation landscape, such practices are currently only possible by those with extremely high levels of skills and techniques. Unstable airframes require pilots with the highest levels of training and expertise. Avant-Jazz is a form simply impossible to play by any but the most gifted musicians. The design and operation of asynchronous cellular automata even now defeats leading mathematicians and computer scientists. Success in the post-innovation landscape is likely therefore to depend on access to individuals who have been trained to the very highest levels and have significant expertise in particular domains. Such individuals have to have mastery of their specialist topic before they can effectively go beyond innovation to create new economic, social and technical landscapes.

Frequent Adaptation

Traditional management or control strategies usually operate on a macro-scale. A goal is set, it is monitored at a relatively small number of intervals (e.g. mid-life project reviews) and outcomes generally assessed towards the latter of half of a project. In the post-innovation landscape this is likely to be quite different. The ‘occasional touch on the control stick’ strategy taught to pilots is highly unsuited to modern fighter aircraft. They require frequent adjustments to stay in the air. Indeed, the degree of instability is such that computer support is generally necessary for most of these aeroplanes to be flyable. In Avant-Jazz rehearsal and scores are generally neglected. Instead a premium is placed on improvisation during which players play instinctively based on their own phrasing and the music that other players around them are currently producing. At its best it results in music with a passion and nuance unmatched by other forms. Cellular automata update their own behaviour frequently, in the asynchronous case the rules of updating are modified at least as often as the cells, resulting in a complexity of behaviour unmatched by traditional forms.

The Post-innovation Perspective

The post-innovation landscape will require different approaches from organisations, different forms of interaction and different skill sets. Of course the longstanding needs of entities will remain: they have to have a purpose, operate within an eco-system or supply chain and have ready access to financial, social, physical and information infrastructure. Current innovation programs are still necessary in the same way the need for quality systems is also not bypassed. However, the post-innovation landscape impacts leadership, organisational development, regional and city innovation policies and the educational sector. The following sections outline where and how these changes will be felt and how best to adapt.


Organisations will need significant numbers of people who are given a great deal of autonomy and these people will be entrusted with the future of the organisation. Their own individual track records will be of the highest calibre but their challenge is to deconstruct skill sets and knowledge and create a new vocabulary and grammar for themselves and their organisations. They may not know precisely where they are going, but their instinct and flexibility serves them well.

These individuals will have to spend much more time learning, experimenting and exploring than is done today. Perfecting their operational skills and exploring new concepts is vital to keeping good instincts and the ability to create new vista’s

Their skill set and approach makes them much more similar to elite sportsmen or artists. In common with such types, they will have a relatively short period in their lives where such instinctive abilities can be effectively deployed. Thereafter roles for them in developing new experts or other roles need to be sought.

The Post-Innovation Organisation

The operational mode of organisations will need to change. There will still be the need for long-term strategy but this will necessarily be broad brush and greater emphasis given to the culture, beliefs and value of the organisation as the guiding lights.

The organisation must possess superlative change management capability such that large numbers of small changes can be effortlessly and fluently executed; a challenge for even the most able COO’s. The organisation must have the capability to assemble and reassemble itself frequently and rapidly to ensure effectiveness as a new cultural and operational landscape is pioneered.

Regional and City Innovation Policies

Given the increasing importance of attracting star players to a region or city, the emphasis on a creative eco-system where supporting mechanisms such as venture capital, world-class universities and a pleasant living and working environment will increase in importance. Furthermore, such individuals are in demand and need to be attracted and incentivised to stay. Traditional inward investment and regional development strategies have focused on companies. Given the increasing role of instinctive leadership, this approach is likely to be insufficient and emphasis on locating and attracting key individuals either at or before their peak performance will increase in importance.

Educational System

Such a landscape is likely to require significant numbers of talented individuals who like premier league footballers or international artists, are highly in demand for the relatively brief period they perform to the highest standards. This rapid turnover of instinctive experts means that the educational system needs to reform itself to nurture and enhance creative talent of the highest order. Europe’s elite institutions will need to expand to significantly enhance the number of people with skills of the highest level. This represents a new challenge to the massification trend of contemporary higher education and research that some will find difficult to attain.

Ultimately the requirement of the education system will be to hugely increase the number of individuals who have sufficient mastery of a domain to create a grammar and vocabulary that moves beyond it and put that into practice. This is truly uncharted territory for advanced education.


Innovation is not the end of individual, organisational or regional creativity. Human ingenuity remains central to competitive ability. The systematic approach takes us so far, but examples for science, technology and the arts show the fullest competitive advantages come from highly skilled individuals, encouraged to reconstruct their domains instinctively and possessing the courage and fortitude to master a world of permanent instability and ruthless competition.


[1] ‘Taking Action: Making Innovation Pay’, Harvard Business Review, James P. Andrew, Harold L. Sirkin, John Butman, Jan 9, 2007.
[2] ‘From Ideas to Income’, CEO Today Sovereign Publications. Simon Jones, September 2007, accessible via
[3] ‘F16 Fighter’, Global Security Inc,
[4] ‘Jazz’, Encyclopedia Brittanica Online,
[5] Avant-Garde Jazz, Wikipedia,
[6] ‘The Game of Life’ Scientific American 223 120-123, Martin Gardner, October 1970.
[7] ‘Notes on finite asynchronous automata’, W. Zielonka, Informatique Théorique et Applications. v21. 99-135.


Simon Jones is Full Professor at the University of Amsterdam and former CEO of MIT’s Media Lab Europe. He is Founder of Ictinos Innovation which advises governments, regions, cities and corporations in innovation policy and invests in and advises start ups in the ICT and New Media area. He is based in London and Amsterdam.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is hard to imagine a post-innovation society. Is a society where innovation ceased, because it had become obsolete or unnecessary, possible? Human experience points to the contrary conclusion: more innovation is necessary as mankind progresses to higher stages of development.

Ever since the homo erectus appeared on the Earth, the progress of mankind was dependent on innovations, including those Nature executed on the previous varieties of homines. These innovations progressed slowly initially, but kept accelerating as time approached closer to our era. In other words, there seems to be more innovation available and necessary now, than in the olden times.

To investigate the possibility whether a post-innovation society might be possible, it is necessary to resort to current theories of the future. In this effort, the key term is that of complexity. The initial innovations comprised very simple artifacts: a mace, a fishhook, or a fallen tree connecting two banks of a brook. These very simple innovations have lasted for centuries, indeed, up to our times. More complex innovations appeared later, and the time interval between two innovations of comparable complexity became shorter. In the previous century alone, extremely complex innovations, such as the aircraft, the radio, or the space travel, appeared within one or a few decades. One might thus take the product of the magnitude of an innovation and the duration of the interval to the next innovation, as a quantified indicator of progress.

This is justified by the fact that the evolutionary steps of “punctured equilibrium” characterize the growth of complexity. Punctured equilibrium, or “punk eek”, is a term describing biological evolution as a process undergoing well-defined jumps, with intervals of relative stability in between. With this quantification at hand, three current theories of future developments can be considered.

One theory assumes exponential growth, which follows a steep pattern initially, and explodes later. If this theory were valid, then some fifty years from now, the rate of change would be so fast, that mankind would in one week experience the change comparable to what had happened in the centuries preceding it. The question is whether the rate of change as rapid as this can still be considered change, as nobody would be able to perceive that change any more.

The second theory claims that the growth of complexity is logistic, i.e. follows a so-called S-curve. All S-curves begin exponentially, reach a crest and eventually subside. This is considered to be the most natural growth law, obeyed by anything that grows. This theory puts the crest to the year 1990, expecting that gradually, the rate of change will be decreasing.

The third theory that occupies the minds of some eminent scientists is that of Singularity. The latter is a point in the future when evolutionary development accelerates enormously, so that nothing beyond that time can reliably be conceived. Professor Vernor Vinge, the founder of the Singularity theory, claims that successive innovations will occur in progressively shorter time frames as each new innovation increases in power and converges with other innovations. The cumulative curve representing this process will be “hyper-exponential”, with the resulting waves of technological convergences eventually reaching the Singularity.

Typical fields of activity that might be converging into a singularity comprise the nanotech, neuroscience and AI, eventually resulting in the merging of man and machine (cyborg), and possibly the acceleration of technology beyond our ability to control it.

All this boils down to efforts how to integrate physical science and computer science, i.e. finding ways of transferring the programmability of the digital worlds to the physical (natural) world. Here, too, divergent opinions have existed. One opinion is proposed by Ray Kurzweil, who has been modeling the physical world in computers. His view of the future is that reality, as we know it, collapses and becomes part of computers. His opponent, MIT professor Gershenfeld, studies the interface between computer science and natural sciences. In his opinion, the two branches of science will merge, computers will simply disappear in the physical world, and everything will become programmable.

The big question is when this happens, more exactly, which alternative happens first. The question was tentatively answered by David Dalrymple, a 16 years old doctoral student at MIT. He suggested that both events would take place at the same time. This conclusion pleases both Kurzweil and Geshenfeld. It does not, however, cast any light on the possibility of a post-innovation society, as in the world of cyborgs it is hardly possible to expect that innovation would become obsolete. Rather, it would become part of the daily routine of the programmable and self-organizing humanoids.

The situation when NO innovation would ever help, or would ever be necessary, can be imagined as a result of a major thermo-nuclear war. Mankind would wipe out itself. Let us hope, however, that before that can happen, the cyborgs will take over.

June 16, 2008 10:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is an interesting response to my article, but it misses the point a little bit.

My conjecture is that innovation is itself becoming a commodity since it is increasingly a process which can be aquired and deployed to various degrees of effectiveness (check out the number of innovation agencies there are, if you don't believe me).

Once we have readily available systematic and effective processes for innovation, how can we compete when anyone is able to apply it? My response to this question is by accessing the very highest levels of human creativity by supporting the education and training of people and facilitating ultra-flexible organisational processes to deploy it.

If anything my conjecture is one of the increasing importance of huamn creativity not its assimilation into computing machinery.

June 16, 2008 2:18 PM  

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