Hey, What’s the Big Idea: Modeling the the Networks of Emerging Innovations

“Connex Labyrinth”, Image by fdecomite.

When you want to invite someone new into your LinkedIn network, the social business platform provides users with a simple formatted email making it easier to do this. It reads in part “I’d like to add you to my network”. Recently, a research team published the results of their work proving that a similar network effect 1 occurs not only among people, but also in a comparable manner among new ideas. As a result of such inventive schmoozing, ideas plus other new ideas can now be seen as yielding all kinds of unexpected links to innovation 2.

This “mathematical model for the emergence of innovations” mapping out all these processes was published by the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London, as reported in a fascinating article about an exciting advance on Phys.Org in a story entitled Mathematicians Develop Model for How New Ideas Emerge, posted January 24, 2018. (No writer is credited.)  This article is a summary of the full paper by the research team responsible entitled Network Dynamics of Innovation Processes that appeared in the Physical Review Letters (subscription required), published on January 26, 2018.

I highly recommend a click-through and full read of the Phys.org article, including its two accompanying visualizations. I will recap and annotate some of the key points in this piece and then pose some of own questions about how and why ideas may either swipe left or swipe right when trying to meet up with each other.

New Modeling Combining Two Established Approaches

The research team was led by Professor Vito Latora, who was also the lead author of the paper. They found that by “studying creative processes and understanding how innovations arise” and, furthermore, how [mathematical] “novelties” can lead to additional discoveries, the results of these interactions can lead to “effective interventions” that could support the “success and sustainable growth” in our society. Similar patterns have been seen in scientific and artistic fields 3.

This was accomplished by first transposing the theory of the ‘adjacent possible’ from its original field of biological systems into, second, the “language of complex networks“. The former describes the “set of all novel opportunities” that arise whenever a new discovery appears. The latter has become a reliable means to study actual systems in the real world by examining the key relationships “between the components” and, in turn, modeling the “hidden structure behind many complex social phenomena”.

In effect, network modeling has been applied here to construct the “underlying space of relations among concepts”. Indeed, some very cool and productive connections are occurring within such idea-fueled networks.

Professor Latora further believes that understanding the key elements of a successful idea are critical to later making decisions, forming strategies and supporting successes.  He thinks that such results can be part of “sustainable growth in our society”.

Potential Benefits for Multiple Fields

Another new methodology was derived during the course of his team’s research: The concept of “reinforced walks” (as a subset of “random walks“, a form of mathematical object 4), was used as the basis to model the interaction among concepts and ideas. During all of this activity “innovation corresponds to the first visit of a site on the network”, as well as every time such a “walker”, as termed in the article, transits from one concept to another concept. The more this type of path is traveled, the more it becomes reinforced and thus productive. This network dynamic, named by the team as the “edge-reinforced random walk“, is clearly diagrammed and further described in the Phys.Org article’s first graphic.

In an actual case study applying this methodology, the research team built a database of 20 years’ worth of publications from a diversity of fields including “astronomy, ecology, economics and mathematics”. This was done to examine the emergence of new concepts. Their results of applying their edge-reinforced random walk model to this compilation was that they succeeded in reproducing evidence of the growth of knowledge in contemporary science.

Professor Latora and his team are currently working to extend their model by studying network spaces where several of these “walkers” are operating simultaneously 5.

My Questions

  • Can edge-reinforced random walks be adapted and applied to additional non-scientific and non-artistic domains such as history, politics and culture? That is, can it yield meaningful results and insights in sectors of society that are less data-derived?
  • How is this methodology distinguishable from various branches of artificial intelligence where vast stores of data are used to “train” the capabilities of these systems?
  • Can edge-reinforced random walks also be deployed as a form of predictive device? For example, what if a great deal more data from a larger diversity of fields was similarly compiled and tested, would this provide a partial preview into the future in science, technology and biology?
  • Taking this a step further, could edge-reinforced random walks be enhanced to include the capacity to predict or at least sense the possibilities and/or probabilities of entirely unpredictable major events such as market crashes? 6

 


For a comparative perspective, albeit a dated one published 18 years ago, on how human social systems and their interactions will still be needed in the all-encompassing “Information Age”, I suggest a book that is still considered a significant achievement for its time entitled The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and David Duguid (Harvard Business Review, 2000).


1.  Network effects among people, populations and technologies have also been explored in these 10 Subway Fold posts.

2.  See also this April 28, 2016 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

3.  Another example is the study of laws and legal precedents  in this manner as described in this May 15, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Recent Visualization Projects Involving US Law and The Supreme Court.

4.  This concept as applied in securities trading is the subject of a classic text on this subject entitled A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel (W. W. Norton & Company, Eleventh Edition, 2016)

5.  In an entirely different context, fans of The Walking Dead will also appreciate how large groups of walkers manifest their own distinctly emergent behaviors.

6.  The leading text on this subject is The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Random House, 2010).

Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.


For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.


1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.