Schumpeterian Recombination and Scientific Progress
| Peter Klein |
Scientific progress, like economic progress, largely consists of combining and recombining existing resources and knowledge. At least that’s the way I interpret a new paper from Santa Fe Institute researchers Hyejin Youn, Luis Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, and Deborah Strumsky, “Invention as a Combinatorial Process: Evidence from US Patents” (via Steve Fiore):
Invention has been commonly conceptualized as a search over a space of combinatorial possibilities. Despite the existence of a rich literature, spanning a variety of disciplines, elaborating on the recombinant nature of invention, we lack a formal and quantitative characterization of the combinatorial process underpinning inventive activity. Here, we use US patent records dating from 1790 to 2010 to formally characterize invention as a combinatorial process. To do this, we treat patented inventions as carriers of technologies and avail ourselves of the elaborate system of technology codes used by the United States Patent and Trademark Office to classify the technologies responsible for an invention’s novelty. We find that the combinatorial inventive process exhibits an invariant rate of ‘exploitation’ (refinements of existing combinations of technologies) and ‘exploration’ (the development of new technological combinations). This combinatorial dynamic contrasts sharply with the creation of new technological capabilities—the building blocks to be combined—that has significantly slowed down. We also find that, notwithstanding the very reduced rate at which new technologies are introduced, the generation of novel technological combinations engenders a practically infinite space of technological configurations.
Or, as the Santa Fe press release puts it, “Most new patents are combinations of existing ideas and pretty much always have been, even as the stream of fundamentally new core technologies has slowed.” See also the authors’ earlier paper, “Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact.”