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The Evolution of Ideas: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

May 29, 2024
Jonas Hultenius

Innovation. The word conjures up images of new and groundbreaking inventions and revolutionary concepts that birth entirely new sectors and ways of living. It’s tempting to view these breakthroughs as one singular moments of genius, sparks igniting in a vacuum, concept plucked straight from the ether. But, the reality of innovation is far more fascinating, exiting and collaborative. New ideas, like all living things, evolve. They are the culmination of countless smaller ideas, experiments, and failures that came before it.
Imagine a lone inventor staring at a blank canvas, willing a brand-new machine into existence. This image, while dramatic, misses the mark entirely. Every single innovation stands on the shoulders of giants. Their worth based on the work of the countless researchers, thinkers, and even countless failures that paved the way for us to get here today.
The printing press, for example, wasn’t a sudden burst of invention by Johannes Gutenberg, but the combined product of centuries of advancements in papermaking, movable type and a need to produce scriptures in larger quantities. Gutenberg’s genius lay not in creating something entirely new, but in recognizing the potential of these existing ideas, combining them and evolving them to something more. He was, simply, the right man at the right time and with the right resources to evolve these ideas further.
This evolutionary process of ideas can be seen all throughout history. The theory of evolution itself is a prime example. When Charles Darwin first proposed or ‘invented’ the concept of change over time, the ideas of natural selection had already been bubbling around for centuries in intellectual circles.
And the thinkers like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had already proposed theories of inheritance of acquired traits almost one hundred years before. Darwin’s genius lay in his meticulous documentation of the variations he observed in nature, connecting the dots and weaving them into a cohesive theory of evolution by natural selection. This theory, in turn, built upon the groundwork laid by earlier scientists like Georges Cuvier and James Hutton, who challenged the prevailing notion of a static Earth.
The same principle applies to everything else in the modern world. The smartphone you carry in your pocket isn’t the product of a single brilliant mind figuring it all out alone in garage or basement. It was not done overnight; it’s the culmination of countless decades of research done by others in fields like miniaturization, pure computer processing power, and wireless communication.
The groundwork was laid by the scientists who developed transistors, the engineers who built the first integrated circuits and the programmers who wrote the earliest operating systems. They all, unknowingly, contributed to the devices we all carry around each day.
This interconnectedness of ideas isn’t just a historical curiosity, it’s a powerful framework for fostering innovation in the present. By understanding how ideas evolve, we allow ourselves the to think freely and not focus in on imagining the impossible.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, we can leverage the vast body of knowledge and technology that already exists and build on top of it to invent something that is greater than the sum of their parts. By recognizing the potential for synergy between concepts that are not often associated we can create new and unexpected breakthroughs that were not obvious until they are combined. Creations like cookie dough and ice-cream, peanut butter and chocolate or rental movies by mail.
Innovation thrives on the exchange of ideas and perspectives. By working together, we can build upon each other’s work and accelerate the pace of progress. But, this collaborative, evolutionary approach isn’t without its challenges. The sheer volume of existing information today can be overwhelming and making it difficult, near to impossible, to identify the relevant pieces. Furthermore, the pressure for originality can lead to a reluctance to build upon the work of others.
Originality. It is both a beautiful word, or at least I think so, and a curse to anyone that wants to create something new. There is so much that have been done before so finding something completely new is a hopeless endeavor. Instead, we should cut ourselves some slack and double down on the evolutionary aspect and exchange ideas and work together with others or be inspired by all the minds that came before us. If we foster a culture, both in our organizations and in society in general, of open inquiry and collaboration we can overcome these hurdles. If we free our minds of mindless preconceptions about what is right, original or a ‘good’ idea we can superpower our innovation. A Cambrian explosion of thoughts, a burst of pure evolutionary powers, that may be boosted even further by the current revolution in AI. To get there we must encourage interdisciplinary thinking and break down the silos between different fields of study to create a space where seemingly unrelated ideas can interact.
We must also become better at celebrate iterative innovation and recognize that breakthroughs are often the result of many small improvements rather than one monumental leap. We tend to focus too much on the big picture that we often overlook that there are changes occurring around us all the time and we and our ideas are evolving.
Lastly, we must open granaries of thought and share what we know freely, by promoting open-source knowledge sharing, by making scientific papers, research data, and even code readily available to all we foster collaboration. And in turn further accelerates the pace of discovery.
By embracing the evolutionary nature of ideas, we can unlock a new level of innovation. We can move beyond the myth of the lone genius and acknowledge the interconnected web of knowledge that fuels progress. Innovations and new ideas are something that is inherit in all of us. We just need the right conditions to express ourselves and bloom.
The next time you encounter a groundbreaking idea, take a moment to appreciate the countless “whys” and “hows” that came before it. Remember, innovation isn’t about starting from scratch, it’s about building upon the foundation laid by those who came before us, and in turn, paving the way for the brilliant minds of the future.

About the author

Software Architect | Sweden
I love technology and I tend to collect languages, techniques, patterns and ideas and stack them high. There is a beautiful synergy to be had and endless possibilities when mixing and matching. A process I find to be both exciting and fun. Innovation has always been a driving force for me.

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