Barriers to innovation

Our institutions

Burke also made reference to institutions frustrating innovation because they are based on the problems, solutions, and knowledge of the past, and are continually looking backward, hoping to continue to innovate based on what straight lines of discovery they can extend from that past knowledge. The problem with this otherwise reasonable approach being that "The future you might want to plan for is almost never a simple straight-line extension of the present," and that such a focus on the historical and present achievements of an institution artificially discourages the collision of previously unassociated ideas that leads to innovation.

A further symptom he cites of this institutional problem lies in the western approach to higher education focusing at the graduate and postgraduate level on "learning more and more about less and less," a case in point being a colleague whose work apexed in studying John Milton's use of the comma. Burke traces this to "the man I blame for everything... Rene Descartes" and his reductionism as put forth in Rules for the Direction of the Mind_. (See especially rules V - VII.) To properly study complex things we must reduce them to simple propositions to which we devote our full attention.

As a result, we compartmentalize knowledge into an array of disciplines where everybody focuses on the details of their own discipline, leaving other areas of knowledge to the other disciplines to make sure that we're attending properly to our own. Conventional wisdom says that until recently we rarely broke the invisible walls between disciplines to cross pollinate among them within higher education.

I see this as conventional wisdom in that I hear many people say this was true, but have never been presented documented proof of how long it's gone on or that it has necessarily changed despite our best intentions. It has the reasonable sound of conventional wisdom, which is part of such wisdom's treachery. I also find this concept hard to reconcile with the historical examples of technologies or ideas in one discipline rippling into innovations in another that Burke is so fond of highlighting.

Where innovation lives

Burke notes that the most likely places we will find ideas that will lead to innovation lie in today's gaps between disciplines, markets, and social needs. He cites Norbert Wiener saying "Change comes most of all from that unvisited no-man's-land that lies between the disciplines." Or in his own words earlier in the presentation...

When differing types of data come together in new ways, 1 + 1 = 3. The rules of math change. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

When ideas collide that people haven't brought together before, innovations develop that can (and often do) bring historical change through their primary or ripple effects. That being the basic thrust of Burke's work on the Connections series, his lecture series, and his KnowledgeWeb project.