Keeping the Big Idea Alive
Ryan Junee
102

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on big ideas, Ryan. Big ideas have been my constant companions as long as I can remember, and the only kind I deemed worthy of pursuing. What’s the point of a little idea — even one executed to perfection that makes only an incremental, trivial contribution to the world? Would the world be a better place if the Wright brothers had been content to make more efficient, or more affordable bicycles? Hell no.

For me, big ideas were absolute prerequisites to designing the future, and what else was worth doing? I idolized men like R. Buckminster Fuller who seemed unconstrained by the banalities of tradition, building codes, or the latest facades to emerge from the European school of the moment. Fuller advocated an approach that is only now beginning to be taken seriously — look to nature for engineering.

The history of innovation was more alive and more exciting to me than any fictional adventure ever could be, and I studied the field like an archeologist studies tombs for clues about the lives of their inhabitants. What emerged was not a family tree of genius innovators, but a smeared patchwork of increments and accidents — the fingerprints of an evolutionary process without a beginning or direction. What the wright brothers and R. Buckminster Fuller had in common was not unique genius or originality as much as they are examples of exaptation. Bicycles to flying machines is as clearly an exaptation as are symmetrical down feathers for warmth to asymetrical feathers for flight, or Fullers exaptation of honeycombs for geodesic domes.

The problem with big ideas is that they often represent a conclusion, and preceeding from a conclusion is always tricky business. Stuart Kauffman describes the problem in terms of the Adjacent Possible, and it’s a qualifying feature of evolutionary theory that every incremental stage of evolution must be independently viable. In other words, you can’t skip steps, and it’s all but impossible to guess what the step after the next step will be. Maybe this is why your big ideas are inevitably pared down to something that can survive in the wild? And maybe great innovators follow ideas along their paths of the adjacent possible more than they draw maps to glorious futures? And maybe that’s even more exciting?

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experience, and never give up on big ideas, however you find them.

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