In 1922, two researchers of Columbia University compiled a list of over 140 inventions and discoveries where the inventors, independently from each other, not knowing about the other(s), in different countries or even continents, had discovered or invented the same within a short period.
On the same day in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for the telephone, another person filed a patent for the telephone just a few hours later – in the same patent office. In 1745 and 1746 both Ewald Georg von Kleist and Pieter van Musschenbroek invented the electric battery. Josef Ressel, John Ericsson, Francis Pettit Smith, David Bushnell and Robert Fulton independently invented the propeller within the same period.
How can it be that those people come up with the same idea in that short period? In fact, the question should be different: why are not more people having the same idea? An idea does not come out of the blue. A technological breakthrough or discovery is ‘in the air.’ And that has to do with the building blocks and the concept of what we call the ‘adjacent possible.’
It all starts with the available building blocks. When in 2007 the iPhone was announced, many would not consider it to be innovative. ‘What was new?’ All the technologies already existed. Touchscreen, cellular network, computer chip, operation system, app store, camera, apps, subscription model. None of those elements in themselves were new.
But those were exactly the building blocks that made the iPhone possible. That somebody would combine those elements into a device was not a question of if, but of when. Some had tried. Nokia and Blackberry had created versions with some of the elements. But their efforts lacked maybe timing, ambition, or functionality.
And that is the crucial difference. The true accomplishment of an inventor is finding the right combination at the right time of existing building blocks. Most combinations and effort fail. It took Thomas Edison thousands of trials to find the right combination of building blocks to create the light bulb. An inventor’s most important skill is grit.
In nature, we find the same. Starting from the elements as most basic building blocks (not talking here about atoms, neutrons, electrons, quarks etc.), the first combinations of elements created new building blocks. Combining hydrogen and oxygen gives us water. That is a requirement helping other molecules – read building blocks – to combine. Once those building blocks combine, they create larger building blocks. The number of building blocks thus increases. From 100+ elements that we know today, we came to hundreds of millions of organic and inorganic materials in different states.
These also bring us millions of combinations that were not successful. The first organic molecules brought us cells, that combined, and ultimately brought us the human. But millions of species in the hundreds of millions of years went extinct.
But we could not get from an organic molecule to the human out of nowhere. This is a process that required combination and recombination of simple to more and more complex building blocks. This principle is called the ‘adjacent possible.’ We can imagine that like walking from one room to another through doors. Imagine a house with thousands of rooms. To walk from the first room to the 100th room, we can just beeline. We need to walk through the other 98 rooms as well.
Lego is a good example. What started with a handful of differently shaped bricks is now a universe of bricks that gives Lego-fans an almost infinite way of creating Lego-models. I remember the limited number of bricks that I had in my childhood, and feel quite overwhelmed today with the possibilities, given all the bricks that have hit the market since I was a child.
The building blocks that are available today can give us a clue of what the technologies of the future are. At least for the next five to ten years. In 2006 all the building blocks had been available to make the iPhone possible. It did not require great insight and foresight skills to forecast that something like the iPhone will be possible. In fact, it’s often much earlier possible to forecast the future, as we can see in the following paragraph.
In 1999, David Gerrold write the following “future of computing” prediction for a technology magazine. What he describes is basically what we today know as smartphone and the current Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Surprise? Not really, as we learned. But kudos to him to bring them together that early.
Forecasting possible futures becomes an exercise of knowing today’s technologies, business models from many many industries, and understanding of how they could be combined, as well as how people would interact with them and what problems they solve.
The mistake that experts tend to make is drawing their knowledge from a very narrow field, mostly only from their own industry. While some technologies and models may appear here, they may dismiss them as lonely signal.
One thing has always been easy to predict. Once a building block is available, people will find ways of combining them with other building blocks. The adjacent possible already describes the futures.
This article has also been published in German.