Innovation extends from our current knowledge, technology and ethnography into what theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman coined as the Adjacent Possible.[i] Described by innovation theorist Steven B. Johnson[ii] as, “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things,” the Adjacent Possible “is a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”
In other words, innovation only happens within the realm of possibilities available at any given moment. Beyond the Adjacent Possible lies theory and idea, and often radical innovation.
Think of radical innovation as the old cliché, ‘you can’t get there from here’—referring to the impossibility of traveling a direct route between certain points. You have to go somewhere else first or something else first has to happen.
For example, the helicopter, designed by da Vinci in the late 15th Century, had to wait until the early 20th Century for both engines with a high power-to-weight ratio and high energy density fuel to be developed.
The expansion of the highway system was necessary before cars could gain wide-spread use. Similarly, the wide-spread adoption of hydrogen-powered cars will have to wait until a hydrogen refueling infrastructure is in place. In contrast, Tesla recognizes this limitation for electric cars and has invested in developing the necessary infrastructure.
Mobile voice communications couldn’t get past the 3-calls-per-city limit of the 1940s to the 50,000-calls-per-tower density of the 1980s until packet switching technologies of the 1960s were developed. Streaming video wasn’t possible until high-speed internet was more readily available, also using packet switching technology, and video compression/decompression technology progressed to a sufficiently high density.
Uber, AirBNB and other digital matching firms only became technically viable with the proliferation of cloud computing, smartphones, and apps. But the digital matching firms also needed a sufficient number of people to embrace a sharing economy, both as consumers and as providers, before any of these firms could be successful.
The Adjacent Possible theory “captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation[iii].” So, for the most effective innovation initiative, I recommend the following: That you invest the bulk of your time and effort towards exploiting current markets, technology and methods. Invest relatively less time and effort on ideas, technologies or markets that are adjacent to those that currently exist and are functionally possible in the near future. And invest some, but relatively little time and effort trying to get there from here—on developing radical ideas.
[i] The concept later adapted and popularized by innovation theorist Steven B. Johnson.
[ii] The Wall Street Journal, “The Genius of the Tinkerer,” Sept. 25, 2010
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