In­no­va­tion Plucked from the Zeit­geist

Business a.m. - - FRONT PAGE - Michaël Bikard Michaël Bikard is an As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Strat­egy at INSEAD. He re­searches how in­di­vid­u­als and firms use new knowl­edge as a source of com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage. “This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished cour­tesy of INSEAD Knowl­edge(http://knowl­edge.ins

A METHOD TO QUAN­TIFY THE phe­nom­e­non of si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­er­ies sheds in­sight into how one in­no­va­tion wins and an­other is left on the shelf.

Have you ever had a bright idea at nearly the ex­act mo­ment as some­one else? It’s bizarre, yet dif­fi­cult to ex­plain. Con­sider New­ton and Leib­niz in­vent­ing cal­cu­lus nearly...

AMETHOD TO QUAN­TIFY THE phe­nom­e­non of si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­er­ies sheds in­sight into how one in­no­va­tion wins and an­other is left on the shelf.

Have you ever had a bright idea at nearly the ex­act mo­ment as some­one else? It’s bizarre, yet dif­fi­cult to ex­plain. Con­sider New­ton and Leib­niz in­vent­ing cal­cu­lus nearly at the same time. The rea­sons that two peo­ple come up with the same con­cept in dif­fer­ent parts of the world at nearly the same point in time are not well un­der­stood, un­for­tu­nately. Is it in­nate, the en­vi­ron­ment or some­thing else en­tirely?

Some­times it’s clear that an ur­gent puz­zle must be solved. For ex­am­ple, there are now more than 150 teams search­ing for a Covid-19 vac­cine, and it may turn into the largest si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­ery ever. Yet most si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­er­ies don’t have the same ob­vi­ous driver as the rush for a coro­n­avirus vac­cine.

An­other pos­si­bil­ity for the ap­pear­ance of “idea twins” is some­thing far more neb­u­lous: the zeit­geist, or the com­ing to­gether of time and cul­ture in a way that brings such an in­no­va­tion to fruition. For ex­am­ple, en­ergy con­ser­va­tion was a si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­ery which stemmed from sci­en­tific ad­vances, gen­eral con­cern about en­gines and the pop­u­lar­ity of Natur­philoso­phie in the early 19th cen­tury. This school of thought was par­tic­u­larly in­flu­en­tial in the Ger­man-speak­ing world which made a dis­pro­por­tion­ate con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­cov­er­ies. It seems that en­ergy con­ser­va­tion emerged from the zeit­geist.

Like New­ton and Leib­niz, an­other fa­mous pair who came up with sim­i­lar in­ven­tions – dis­clos­ing their in­ven­tion on the same day – were Elisha Gray and Alexan­der Bell who in­vented the tele­phone. Most of us know of Bell yet prac­ti­cally no one has heard of Gray. One in­ven­tion was suc­cess­ful and credit was be­stowed on one in­ven­tor for the orig­i­nal it­er­a­tion of what you are now prob­a­bly read­ing this ar­ti­cle on. In­tu­itively, it makes sense to com­pare the two be­cause they had the same idea at the same time. As with hu­man twins, si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­er­ies or “idea twins” can be stud­ied to find out why it is that one in­ven­tion goes down in his­tory while the other lan­guishes in anonymity.

A method for a phe­nom­e­non

Pin­ning down the phe­nom­e­non of idea twins is no easy task, but it’s been at­tempted for more than a cen­tury. Og­burn and Thomas, in 1922, listed 148 in­stances in a pa­per that went on to be pil­lo­ried for im­pre­ci­sion about what ex­actly com­prises an idea twin.

Be­fore we can mine idea twins for the in­sights into in­no­va­tion they may con­tain, we need a way to iden­tify and quan­tify them. In my re­cent ar­ti­cle in the Strate­gic Man­age­ment Jour­nal, “Idea twins: Si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­er­ies as a re­search tool”, I de­scribe a new method that gen­er­ates lists of re­cent si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­er­ies in sci­ence sys­tem­at­i­cally and au­to­mat­i­cally us­ing openly avail­able sources. Think of it as a new kind of mi­cro­scope that will en­able us to see in­no­va­tions dif­fer­ently.

Study­ing idea twins, es­pe­cially in terms of in­no­va­tion, is use­ful to teach us not only what is suc­cess­ful but what could have been suc­cess­ful, but isn’t. Per­haps the en­vi­ron­ment for one twin wasn’t op­ti­mal, or that idea emerged in the wrong place or at the wrong time. In study­ing twins, it may be pos­si­ble to deepen our un­der­stand­ing of what makes new ideas take off.

Credit as a so­cial con­struct

In her book, Su­san Cozzens de­scribed the con­flict around who re­ceives credit when more than one per­son has a dis­cov­ery in the field of medicine. How does a com­mu­nity re­solve that con­flict and how is it han­dled? She found that credit al­lo­ca­tion is an emer­gent and col­lec­tive process, and that this process is vis­i­ble in the way the com­mu­nity cites re­search ar­ti­cles. A dis­cov­ery is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some­one’s con­tri­bu­tion – it lies in the eyes of the be­holder. Credit al­lo­ca­tion for a new idea is a so­cial con­struct.

Us­ing sys­tem­atic ad­ja­cent co-ci­ta­tions in the lit­er­a­ture to iden­tify in­stances in which two pa­pers share credit for the same dis­cov­ery, my method al­lows oth­ers to cre­ate their own datasets of idea twins in sci­ence. Yet a list of pairs on its own isn’t enough, we need to mea­sure how sim­i­lar the twins are.

In the dataset of 10,927 pairs that I’ve made avail­able in open ac­cess, I de­fine four mea­sures of within-pair sim­i­lar­ity. Now, any­one can choose the sim­i­lar­ity thresh­old they want for two pa­pers to count as twins: rate of coc­i­ta­tion, se­man­tic sim­i­lar­ity, pub­li­ca­tion month dif­fer­ence and back-to-back pub­li­ca­tion (when jour­nals pub­lish very sim­i­lar ar­ti­cles next to each other so au­thors share credit). Like hu­man twins, some pa­per twins are more iden­ti­cal than oth­ers. In the pa­per, I high­light those mea­sures in the case of three si­mul­ta­ne­ous dis­cov­er­ies that were awarded the No­bel Prize in Phys­i­ol­ogy and Medicine in 1975, 1993 and 2019.

My method is deeply rooted in the way credit is al­lo­cated in sci­ence. It there­fore high­lights an as­pect of sci­ence that is sel­dom no­ticed. Sci­ence as an in­sti­tu­tion re­wards pri­or­ity, but it is flex­i­ble enough to al­low for credit shar­ing among mul­ti­ple teams. The same is not true for tech­no­log­i­cal in­ven­tions. The cre­ative process lead­ing to in­ven­tion might be the same as that lead­ing to sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies, but that work takes place in a very dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tional setup. Even if many in­ven­tors have the same idea at the same time, the patent sys­tem forces the al­lo­ca­tion of re­wards onto one team and one team only. This might seem ar­bi­trary, but those are the rules of the game. Clearly, the oc­cur­rence of idea twins raises ques­tions about the fair­ness of those rules.

The unique­ness of new ideas

For decades, so­cial sci­en­tists had been in­volved in some­times fierce de­bates about what counts or does not count as be­ing a twin. Even in cases where two in­di­vid­u­als have ex­actly the same idea, they might not have ar­rived at the con­cept in the same way and might not have used the same words to de­scribe it. Where should one draw the line? The ques­tion seems es­o­teric, but its im­pli­ca­tions are real. Cre­ativ­ity is gen­er­ally de­scribed as tightly linked to orig­i­nal­ity. Yet, if idea twins are com­mon and in­volve some of the big­gest break­throughs, then cre­ativ­ity might not be about be­ing unique or dif­fer­ent. In­stead, it might be about be­ing first. This rep­re­sents a sea change in the way we think about cre­ative suc­cess.

How and why some new ideas ap­pear more unique than oth­ers re­mains lit­tle un­der­stood. In fact, the phe­nom­e­non of idea twins has been hardly ac­knowl­edged in the schol­arly lit­er­a­ture over the past few decades. But by us­ing this method, it seems pos­si­ble to im­prove our un­der­stand­ing of in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity.

A few years af­ter I started work­ing on this phe­nom­e­non, I dis­cov­ered that sev­eral teams had started in­ves­ti­gat­ing idea over­lap in patent in­ter­fer­ences, Euro­pean patent ci­ta­tions, patent ap­pli­ca­tions and even pro­tein struc­ture repos­i­to­ries.

Could the idea of “idea twins” it­self be in the air?

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