Innovation is a Garden of Forking Paths

What is the mechanism by which science translates into socio-economic progress? Between you and me, nobody actually knows too much. However, if you have ever tried to explain why innovation is important and how to foster innovation to someone who is not familiar with science, technology, research and development, chances are that you will have used the Linear Model of Innovation.

The Linear Model of Innovation suggests that technical change happens in a linear fashion, starting with basic research, followed by applied research and development, and ending with production and diffusion. The model is one those naïve ideas usually taken for granted. The precise source of the model remains nebulous, and has never been properly documented.(1).

It is a rhetorical construction favoured by industrialists, consultants and business schools, and sometimes seconded by economists for obvious reasons: If you have to pitch the glory of innovation in an elevator… The linear model simplifies and affords administrators and agencies a sense of orientation when it comes to thinking about allocation of funding to R&D.

I know this is drama for most of my colleagues—engineers. They like to think the world is governed by simple rules they can discover and master. Of course, you know that innovation is not linear. It is a weed, it is a garden of forking paths(2):

If technology does not emerge from the unfolding of a predetermined logic or a single determinant, then innovation is a ‘garden of forking paths’. Different routes are available, potentially leading to different technological outcomes. Significantly, these choices could have differing implications for society and for particular social groups. (Robin Williams and David Edge “The Social Shaping of Technology”)

In my first year at university, I had a teacher who told us: “If you actually want to learn physics, you’d better read Umberto Eco’s “The name of the Rose”. Of course it was a “boutade”, but I can only repeat the same advice here today: If you actually want to learn about innovation, you’d better read Jorge Luis Borges!

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(1) Benoit Godin, Benoit “The Linear Model of Innovation: The Historical Construction of an Analytical Framework”. Science, Technology & Human Values 31, 2006, pp. 639–667.

(2) Robin Williams and David Edge “The Social Shaping of Technology”, Research Policy, Vol. 25, 1996, pp. 865–899

Featured Image: Jorge Luis Borges by Beti Alonso

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