The Collision Theory of Innovation
…I Probably Stole
What if I told you ALL progress, from now on, relies on theft? And that all innovation is appropriation. And that we are all thieves…and have no choice in the matter. It’s because of The Collision Theory of Innovation.
All progress starts with an idea. Back in our cave days, almost every idea was TERRIBLE.
“Why did Jeremiah get the plague?”
“The witch did it!” “Let’s burn the witch!”
“How do we defeat all these Mongolians?”
“We must summon the ghosts of our elders with this special dance…”
“How do we get our crops to grow?”
“Sacrifice this virgin!”
The only time this made any sense was when the virgin was also the witch. At least then, you could cut the death toll in half.
It wasn’t their fault. Primitive minds have malnourished imaginations. They subsist on fear, ignorance and superstition. Today, we take for granted how fast bad ideas get snuffed out — by grade school science or a delightful Twitter mob.
Knowledge tames the wildness of our ideas but deepens their quality. All our virgins get to live.
But it’s no longer science driving us forward, it’s COLLISIONS.
Innovation happens when two or more unrelated ideas collide to create something new. The best collisions can change lives, eliminate drudgery or simply delight. Innovation demands both quality and quantity of collisions.
Quality is driven by knowledge, diversity, intelligence, creativity, industriousness, stimulus, and criticism.
Quantity is all about frequency and volume. The more people in a physical space, the more interactions, the more time spent communicating, the more stimulus, the more collisions.
Sure, a few hermits can spin magic under a willow tree, listening to frogs croak. But for society to benefit, their ideas must reach others, be swapped, debated and butchered — to come up with better ones — or get people to act on them.
We’ve raised our collision game, big time.
Ships, trains, planes and cars brought us to new worlds. They boosted the frequency and quality of collisions. And cities packed us on subways, close enough to name each other’s breakfast, but also into offices where we collide with lots of smart people.
But the greatest leaps didn’t require moving people at all, just the ideas themselves. Radio, telegraph, telephones and TV created collisions at an unimaginable speed and scale. They freed collisions from physical constraints.
Then came the internet. The internet is an idea supercollider. It made collisions exponential. The web is the world’s biggest brainstorming session…that never sleeps. It’s where no idea stays precious for long.
“The internet is an idea supercollider. The web is the world’s biggest brainstorming session…that never sleeps. It’s where no idea stays precious for long.” — Steve Faktor
Not only did we upload our entire body of work — all of our inventions, books, scientific discoveries, fantasies, but we unlocked infinite possibilities.
YouTube, alone, is a massive driver of innovation. It’s this crazy archive of everything that’s possible. When someone ambitious sees a great skateboarding or cooking trick. Not only are they going to copy it, but they’re going try to top it. They’re adding bacon. Or, jumping down four flights of stairs…while holding a cat and chimp under each arm. Then, they’ll post how they did it. That third guy? He’s setting those stairs on fire. (Don’t do this, kids.)
This cycle is helping us unlock infinity for human potential…give or take an occasional, smoky chimp.
So what happens when the number of collisions nears infinity? We’ll start to see more of two remarkable phenomena.
I love comedy. But from time to time, comedians like Amy Schumer, Robin Williams and Conan O’Brien are accused of joke theft. A few, like Carlos Mencia and Denis Leary are blatant, but unless it’s habitual, even identical-sounding jokes are not likely to be products of theft. At least not as we know it, aka “Theft Classic”.
Imagine there are two comedians. One from New York, the other, LA. Both are single, quirky and work late at night. They’re constantly traveling, having road flings, and eating mid-to-bottom ramen. Both consume similar blogs, podcasts and HBO shows. And their circle of friends is maybe one degree apart. Is it that hard to imagine both coming up with similar premises? Or, even an identical joke? Or, someone else, with a similar lifestyle, doing it eventually?
This concept is called parallel thinking and it’s intensifying daily, inside our supercollider.
The same goes for innovation.
When parallel thinking leads to something useful, it’s called multiple discovery.
I have dozens of ideas each week — for new businesses, articles and things to do with cauliflower. (I’m on a low carb diet, don’t ask…) I have way more ideas than I could ever use. But I hoard them in an encrypted file on my phone. I recently went through it and realized everyone’s ripping me off! One by one, my ideas are being pilfered by filthy thieves!!
Perfect example is Pillpack. It creates packets of your prescriptions and vitamins to tear off each customized dose off a perforated roll (like toilet paper). It was bought for a BILLION dollars by Amazon. How dare they steal my idea?!? Don’t they know that in eight to 48 years, I would’ve gotten around building it into a TRILLION-dollar business! I demand restitution!
The reason I’m not holding my breath is multiple discovery, which has been a staple of Western civilization. And it’s nearing overdrive.
Go back to even the most primitive cultures. They all had decorative masks, totem poles and meat on a stick. And independently, Egyptians and Mayans both built pyramids. Though Egyptians wore it better.
All of these things, cobbled together from a thimbleful of accumulated knowledge.
Who came up with electricity? Edison or Tesla?
If Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project didn’t create the atomic bomb, do you think we wouldn’t have atomic bombs? Russia and Germany weren’t far behind — and dying by the tens of thousands each week. Just when you thought your boss gives you crazy deadlines…?
And rock and roll didn’t start with Elvis, Chuck Berry or the Beatles. It was a progression from influences, dating back to Africa.
Same goes for the iPhone. Okay, not exactly back to Africa, but it spawned from collisions of existing technologies — telephony, cellular, batteries, computing, plastics, data compression and many more. Predecessors like Palm and blackberry weren’t that different.
Consider Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, is a remarkable invention that shoots people through an underground tube at blazing speeds, hoping they don’t come out as soup at the other end. But it looks eerily like the Pneumatic Subway patented and built under NYC in the 1860’s.
No Bill Gates? No Steve Jobs? No internet? No word processors? No spreadsheets? As pivotal as she was, is that really true? Or, would we still have all those things, just differently, with a different cast of characters?
That’s the point. Oppenheimer, Tesla, Steve Jobs, Elvis and Musk — they’re not conjurers, they’re conduits. First to the finish line, but far from the only ones in the race who could win.
As time goes on, collisions multiply. Parallel thinking and multiple discovery escalate. That guarantees more and more ‘conductors’ will qualify to build our future. That’s because every invention imaginable is incubating in this infinite global soup. And no matter what patent law says, nobody owns any of them. And never has. Every idea, every invention is the offspring of everything that came before it — the collective of human knowledge. Everything — and everyone is both a product and an ingredient.
That’s’ why I’m comfortable saying that predicting the future has gotten easier. In fact, this piece was just the first “i” in the ‘3I’s of Inevitability’ formula I created to help you predict the future. Not just the future, but the inevitable. Listen to whole story on the ‘Why Even Musk Can’t Trump The Inevitable’ episode of The McFuture podcast. (If you enjoy it, don’t forget to subscribe and share.)
Until next time, enjoy your ride to the limits of human imagination, you beautiful thief.
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Steve Faktor is CEO of IdeaFaktory innovation incubator, former head of the American Express Chairman’s Innovation Fund and futurist author of Econovation. He’s a popular contributor to Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Business Insider, as well as a LinkedIn Influencer. This season on The McFuture podcast, will feature provocative, irreverent monologues on the keys to success in our virtualized future.