Combinatorial Innovation

"We’re in the middle of a period that I refer to as a period of “combinatorial innovation.” So if you look historically, you’ll find periods in history where there would be the availability of a different component parts that innovators could combine or recombine to create new inventions."- Hal Varian, in the link I just posted.


My senior year of college, some of my fellow students somewhat rapidly decided I was some sort of internet guru for no good reason short of the fact that I had landed a job at Google. Folks would come to me with some regularity and pitch me on ideas that were, in my thinking at the time, hopelessly derivative — of the form of “youtube for documents” or “facebook for student travelers” or some such. I bemoaned the state of such simplistic ideas and looked forward to moving to silicon valley, where (in my mind) the true innovators must lie. 


When I first moved out to silicon valley, I was profoundly disappointed by what I ended up finding out there. I had come expecting this massive movement of innovation and interesting people, and fairly quickly come to the conclusion that most of the ideas there were of a similar bent — iterative improvements and recombinations of existing technologies, targeted towards specific subgroups. Where were the big ideas? Certainly, there were the Kevin Kellys of the world who were thinking big and trying new things, but most folks I spoke with seemed content trying out new variations of the latest flavor rather than building deep technological advances. I started developing a deep and abiding cynicism about the web industry in general.


This jaded view informed another challenge I had started to mull; namely, that technology rarely seemed to wow me anymore. As a geeky kid growing up, the potential of what computers could do kept me breathless. New applications and gadgets that made me simply giddy were constantly emerging. As some sort of adult, though, I’d found that excitement had faded to some degree. Was this simply a part of the maturation process? Was it possible, perhaps, that technology was in fact less cool and exciting than 10 years ago?

Ultimately, I think that Hal’s point answers both these concerns quite clearly. Indeed, right now many of the most exciting innovations in the web world may not emerge from developing new technologies. We have such a glut of interesting technologies in existence right now in the web space that it may be most logical to keep experimenting with the new tools at our disposal until a wide variation emerge.

Yes, technology may very well be less exciting than it was 10 years ago* — much of the work being done now is simply recombining existing tools at our disposal to create mature, refined usage of fairly raw technologies. It’s less common to see something emerge that was really beyond our horizons. Nonetheless, this work is important and powerful — and to me, at least, it’s still exciting.