Does innovation need science?

Let’s talk about science. But not from the perspective of what science is. Rather, let’s look at the demand side: What roles does science play in innovation? Does innovation need science at all? Maybe I should testify under oath that I have a passion for science before I address such heretic questions, but let’s see where the idea will get us.

For a start, I postulated that an innovation is the development and implementation of an unprecedented problem solution. Arguably this working definition is entirely unspecific about how that solution is developed or implemented. So there could be a role for science, right?

We usually have the rough idea that innovation somehow involves science and technology (or even Science & Technology). So take a next step and consider Brian Arthur’s definition that a technology is the programming or orchestration of phenomena to a purpose. With this definition, you find that technology can perfectly fulfil the working definition of innovation, as long as the purpose of a specific technology is the realisation of a novel problem solution.

Surprise! Innovation does not have a direct need for science. Science is not a direct precondition to make innovation work. Surprise? Granted, this might be counter-intuitive from today’s perspective. But if you think about it, history clearly supports this outcome. According to Ian Morris’ theorem, slot, greed, and fear have been the motivators for mankind to adjust its environment to its needs. This spirit of innovation goes back to dawn of humanity; and the same applies to the use of tools, i.e. technology – no matter how primitive that might seem today. Science by contrast, in existence now for roughly 250 years, is a fairly young sprout on the tree of human accomplishment.

Of course I don’t intend to deny science its crucial position in our striving for innovation. But I want to point out that science is not an end in itself. Arthur’s definition of technology actually provides several indirect hooks for science to deliver essential contributions. That definition comprises three key components: phenomena, programming or orchestration, and purpose. All three of them offer a role for science.

Most obviously, phenomena are at the heart of the scientific quest. Science unearths phenomena or effects and makes them accessible to human understanding. To be precise: science does not invent or create these phenomena (for they exist with and without mankind’s conscious awareness). Rather, science expands the realm of the known; science generates knowledge by systematically testing ideas and verifying or falsifying hypotheses. In the context of innovation and technology, science adds to the overall toolbox of “available” phenomena that can be exploited for a human purpose.

Next is the programming or orchestration of phenomena. Arthur uses both terms, but to my mind, programming is too narrow, because it is technical. I prefer orchestration, because it contains a hint of artistry. And I can see three roles for science to help with this.

  • At first glance, it should be good enough to simply know that a phenomenon exists in order to be able to exploit it. Look again, and you will learn the difference between knowing its existence and being able to control it. Control requires a far deeper level of understanding, and simply more knowledge. Science is the means to systematically acquire this deeper understanding.
  • Though handling single phenomena can already be difficult enough, the real art (here’s the reason why I prefer orchestration) is managing a number of phenomena in concert. Even if you have full control over each of the individual instruments (a.k.a. phenomena), that doesn’t mean that you can make them play in harmony. Rather, it is quite likely that there will be animosity between some of your artists that you will have to overcome. Again, science is the means to systematically acquire the knowledge you need to turn your solo artist into a genuine team.
  • There’s a third facet of orchestration. And that comes with the ever-increasing toolbox of known phenomena. Though it is positive to have more instruments (phenomena, tools) at your disposal, mastering ever-larger orchestras presents new challenges. Interdependencies create complexity that is difficult to control. And once again, science is the means to devise strategies and methodologies to contain that complexity. Think for example about the grouping of instruments in string, woodwind, brass, percussion to bring order to the artistic chaos.

Finally, purpose. Science itself and its progress depends critically upon progress in technology. In fact the two have co-evolved ever since the scientific method was established. The reason is simple: science relies on observations of the natural environment, and technology delivers the tools for science to do so. Just consider how far Galileo could see without the craftsmanship of his lens maker. Science needs technology to do its magic. And technology needs science to find new instruments, learn how to play them, build orchestras, and make all the solo artists play in harmony.

No role for science in innovation? Completely wrong! Of course!

On the contrary: science and technology / technology and science are the inseparable driving forces that relentlessly thrust innovation forward. Together they took mankind on a dizzying trip of unprecedented progress to create the world as we know it today. The invention of science is therefore no small accomplishment, we actually owe a lot to it. I’ll dive a little deeper in an upcoming post

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