Understanding innovation as a learning process

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Ezra Klein uses his critiques of the new movie “The Social Network” to talk about innovation. As he notes about the movie:

it misses the richer drama behind transformative innovations like Facebook, and it’s part and parcel of the way we misunderstand, and thus impede, innovation.
“The idea of the lone genius who has the eureka moment where they suddenly get a great idea that changes the world is not just the exception,” says Steven Johnson, author of ” Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation ,” “but almost nonexistent.”
And that’s because innovation isn’t really about individuals.

That is exactly right! But innovation isn’t just about technology either. Unfortunately, when it come to policy recommendations, Klein falls back on the general hand-waving solutions:

You need a good education system. You need intellectual-property rules that ensure space for new ideas and uses. You need a tax code that encourages research and development spending. You need, in other words, to furnish people with an environment in which innovation can take place.

Doing that last part — creating the environment — goes well beyond education, IP law and tax incentives for R&D. In Steven Johnson’s TED2010 talk, he describes the importance of the innovative “space” and how ideas evolve through networks. He argues that innovation is a learning process.
So the policy question is how to build these spaces for the learning process. Note that I say “learning”, not “education” — two very different processes. We need more attention to knowledge flows and knowledge networks. And we need to think of these knowledge flows for ideas that go beyond new technologies.
This is new territory for policy — one that we need to explore quickly.
(By the way, Johnson tells the story of how GPS came about — including the policy decision to open up the Cold War system to commercial use. How do we create a policy framework that captures that trajectory?)


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