Patterns of Innovation: How Remixes Demonstrate Originality

Micaela Tam

Now more than ever, remixing permeates our culture. Digitally, we are able to communicate, redistribute and build upon information much quicker than before. DJs rearrange and combine existing recordings to develop distinctive mixes of songs and many of today’s most popular songs use samples of those recorded decades ago. But remixing isn’t just limited to the medium of music — it’s prevalent in all sorts of media. Remixing is simply the process of taking existing forms of media and altering them to create something new.

Take Internet memes. Memes, once created, are almost like living entities; they’re constantly transformed, mimicked and remixed by the users of the Internet. Interestingly the word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins, a respected evolutionary biologist, in the mid 1970s before the modern internet to describe an element of culture passed from one individual to another by imitation or non-genetic means. Dawkins likened the spread of cultural ideas with the transfer of genes, replicating and mutating over time. Progress, innovation, evolution… they all follow the combinatorial patterns of innovation: this is something that our most celebrated figures — whether they be scientists, inventors, politicians, artists, entrepreneurs or writers — have always observed and understood.

Here are some variations of the “Is your child texting about…” memes:

Movie adaptations of books such as Harry Potter also count as forms of remix. Or Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which was innovative because it combined and adapted from film techniques and scene templates from previous movies. It’s no surprise that Walt Disney’s animated films are remixes of the tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, who all also collected and refashioned traditional children’s stories.

Even before the digital age, artists and writers engaged in remixing techniques. Florilegium, the collection of extracts from various writing sources into one volume, is a practice that dates back to medieval times and considered to be an early example of remixing. Compiled together to utilise knowledge on certain topics or doctrines, florilegium demonstrates recognition by medieval scholars of the combinatorial value of information. In other words, the whole idea of a florilegium, to gather insights from different sources into one volume, indicates the awareness that knowledge is built upon and that greater insights may be seen through finding connections between existing publications.

Call it what you want — bisociation, remixing, combinatorial innovation — but many have noted the combinatorial patterns of innovation and creativity. In the exploration of these concepts, one naturally comes to the question: if everything is combinatorial, then what’s originality? Innovation is frequently linked with originality, and rightly so.

Albert Einstein once said: “combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Being original isn’t about coming up with completely novel, out-of-the-blue ideas. It’s not about the single Eureka moments, but about the ones leading up to it. Originality refers to the ability to think creatively, and creativity, in the words of Albert Einstein, is the result of combinatorial play. Thus true originality and innovation comes from the ability to perceive links between existing resources to create something new. Originality is about connecting the dots, finding the bigger picture in a constellation of ideas. We can’t constantly wait for a single moment of inspiration to exact change. Inspiration is a long process that ultimately and inevitably clicks when all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Therefore, we need to gather experience, listen to the expertise of others and explore various ideas in order for innovation to occur. In the context of multi-sector partnerships, network partners engage in the creative process by curating resources and ‘remixing’ them to solve a problem.

It’s very much about expanding boundaries and understanding that we have more resources than we think we do. In working together with multiple sectors to solve specific global issues, we can find inspiration much more quickly and sustainably rather than waiting for a single opportunity to arise. Be original and see the opportunities that are in front of you and cultivate creativity through combinatorial action. Believe not in what you can’t do right now, but in what you can do later if you just get moving.


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