I recently wrote about the winner-takes-all economy, based on what I read in The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The authors also provided some fascinating insights into how recombinations are driving economic growth. The insights about recombinations is very helpful in understanding the type of start-ups that are most likely to succeed.
Effectively, recombinations are taking different technological improvements and combining them to create disruptive products. An example they use is Waze, the smartphone app that provides optimal driving directions. Waze is a recombination of a location sensor, data transmission device (that is, a phone), GPS system, and social network. The team at Waze invented none of these technologies; they just put them together in a new way. None of these elements was particularly novel. Their combination was revolutionary.
While recombinations initially feel like something that would drive incremental innovation, because you are combining multiple rapidly increasing technologies it leads toexponential growth that creates staggeringly big numbers, ones that leave our intuition and experience behind.
The authors cite economist Martin Weitzman, who developed a mathematical model of new growth theory, in which the fixed factors in an economy—machine tools, trucks, laboratories, etc— are augmented over time by pieces of knowledge that he calls ‘seed ideas,’ and knowledge itself increases over time as previous seed ideas are recombined into new ones. This is an innovation-as-building-block view of the world, where both the knowledge pieces and the seed ideas can be combined and recombined over time. This model has a fascinating result: Because combinatorial possibilities explode so quickly, there is an infinite number of recombinations of the existing knowledge pieces. Continue reading