An interesting analogy for technological innovation is a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle represents an existing technology. The finished puzzle represents a new technology.
Jigsaw puzzles typically come in boxes that contains all the necessary pieces for completing the puzzle, along with a photo of the completed puzzle on the cover. This photo gives the puzzle solver important clues as to a general location where a specific piece might be located. Light blue pieces might be a portion of the sky which is up near the top of the puzzle. Orange pieces might be the sun in the top right. Generally, one person sits down for an extended period to complete the puzzle, and when it is done that person might admire it for a while, but ultimately the final product goes back into the box.
The reason why a jigsaw puzzle is an apt analogy for technological innovation is that technology is combinatory and modular. Each piece of technology can be broken down into smaller technologies. For example, a bicycle can be broken down into a frame, two wheels, a transmission, brakes, etc. We can call these sub-technologies components. Each component is both a technology unto itself as well as a part in a larger more complex piece of technology. Then each of those components can be broken down into sub-components. The process continues until all technologies are broken down into their base materials. Putting together a puzzle is combining pieces together to create a finished product.
Innovation is the opposite of breaking down a technology into its components, sub-components and materials. Technological innovation is about assembling existing technologies together to form something that has never existing before. Each component, sub-component and material already existed before the new technology existed, but together they make something unique, and hopefully useful. A new technology is, therefore, the first instance of a unique combination of two or more existing technologies.
But as we explore the analogy deeper, we notice that technological innovation is a very different process than an individual solving a jigsaw puzzle. Innovation is different from a typical puzzle in that:
- Innovation is far more likely to be a group of people assembling a puzzle than an individual. Despite history books being full of heroic individuals, such as Tesla, Edison, Ford and Jobs, innovation in the real world always involves many people, most of whom are not mentioned in the history books.
- A puzzle is not useful after it is finished. It is usually taken apart and then put back in its box. A new technology is useful, because it performs a task better or more cheaply than existing technology. This means that it persists long after the “puzzle” is completed.
- Even more important, a new technology becomes a potential component in future technologies. A new type of engine, software, hardware component or material can potentially be used in many technologies. Doing so, creates the first instance of a new technology.
- A puzzle has a front cover the helps people understand how all the pieces fit together. Technology has no equivalent. This makes creating new technology far harder than building a puzzle. People must “design” how the pieces fit together before they can complete the puzzle. The design is an educated guess as to which pieces are necessary and roughly how they fit together.
- A puzzle has exactly the right number and type of pieces. In technology, there are far more potential component technologies than are necessary to create a new technology. Some may appear to be useful in assembling the puzzle but are not. Others may look unimportant but are actually key pieces of the puzzle.
- In technology, some of the “puzzle pieces” may be missing (i.e. a necessary component has not yet been created). This missing piece then becomes its own puzzle that must be finished before the bigger puzzle can be completed. If there is only one “missing piece”, it may be relatively easy to conceive of and design it. This makes the primary problem one of implementation. But if there are multiple missing pieces, the “shape” of each those pieces are unknown. In other words, it may be difficult for people to even conceive of each of the component technologies that need to be created. This makes it unlikely that the new technology can be created. Someone else may need to create a component, and then another team at a later date may try to resolve the problem. Since this time all the pieces are available, the “puzzle” can be completed.
- In puzzle building, each person has knowledge of all of the puzzle pieces. In technology, each person has an understanding in the proper use of only a few technologies. As innovating new technologies require understanding of numerous potential component technologies, this puts a serious limitation on the ability of one person working alone to create a new technology. Therefore, a group with a diverse skill set has an advantage over an individual or a homogeneous group, whose members all have the same skillset.
- People work on puzzles in their free time, because it is fun. This limits the amount of time that most people devote to puzzle building. While many people find creating new technology fun, the vast majority who work on technology are paid to work full-time. This greatly increases the total number of man-hours devoted to innovating technology. Each man-hour devoted to solving a problem increased the change that it will be solved.
- Puzzle building is usually limited to one person or a set group of people. In technological innovation, people often realize that their group is missing a key skill and know other persons who possess that skill. Therefore, the more connected innovators are, the more opportunity they have to know a person who can help.
- In puzzle building, the shape of each piece is fixed and it is considered cheating to change its shape to make it fit properly. In technological innovation, it is not unusual to modify a component technology so that it functions better within the new technology. Doing so, contributes to innovation in four ways. First, the modified component is effectively a new technology. Second, the new piece enables the higher technology to be created, effectively a second technology. Third, the modified component can be used to improve other technologies that were using the unmodified component. Finally, the modified component may turn out to be a key component that leads to one or more technological innovations.
Solved any good puzzle lately?
If you would like to learn more about technological innovation, read my book From Poverty to Progress.