In our society, it is still quite common to attribute the creation of new ideas to either genius or serendipity – a lucky moment finding a valuable insight without actually looking for it. In recent years, however, human creativity was demystified. Empirical research shows that the development of novel ideas has less to do with the inexplicable genius of some individuals, than with the circumstances in which they occur. No genius of any sort could have invented an iPhone in 1850, since the technological trajectory was not anywhere near this point at that time. If there is a ‘natural limit’ to innovation, then how can we describe the field of possible innovations?

If innovation would be a natural science, researchers would try to come up with a formula defining the boundaries of innovations. While there is an ongoing discussion whether this is theoretically possible for economic activities, attempts to explain the field of possible innovation have recently emerged from a very different discipline – theoretical biology. Systems, may it be on the molecular, behavioral, technological or organizational sphere, explore the adjacent possible by mutating their characteristics. Immediate change is limited to options that are only one-step (intellectual or biological) away. However, once such changes are made, then new opportunities become adjacent (i.e. just one-step away) and therefore possible. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. This creates a conceptual sphere of knowledge that automatically expands as you explore it. In an attempt to describe the (physical) properties of this sphere, the closest parallel would be a vacuum. On earth, a vacuum is temporary in nature and quickly filled with matter once possible. The same is true for this conceptual space, which is uncharted space on the edges of current knowledge with nothing in it, yet the place where new ideas emerge quickly. Within this sphere, innovation happens fast and so manifold that it is quite common to see multiple inventions at the same time emerging independently.

If a technology or idea is within the adjacent possible, it can theoretically be realized. Whether it becomes a success on a larger scale depends on the economic viability of its realization concept. While it is currently theoretically possible to get your entire personal DNA sequenced in order to receive personalized medication, it still not economical feasible to do so. However, due to advances in the field of genomics, substantial reductions in the cost of genome sequencing will move personal genome-based medication within the threshold of the adjacent viable. As a result, we will see a lot of innovation based on sequenced personal DNA in the next years.

Human behavior, finally, also plays an important role in the innovation process. If compatibility with existing behavioral patterns is too small, it is almost impossible to initiate social change immediately. Using a fully autonomous vehicle, for instance, is out of the accepted behavior range for most people. Yet, by the increasing use of driver-assistance systems, individuals will get more used to the idea of handing over driving control to a computer system. The Adjacent Acceptable thus represents a small area on the current edges of socially accepted behavior, which currently only innovators embrace but soon will reach the early majority of technology adopters.

In sum, the occurrence of innovations, despite its randomness, follows certain patterns and generally occurs within the defined boundaries of the Adjacent Possible, the Adjacent Viable and the Adjacent Acceptable. It is only, however, by bringing all three dimensions together in the Opportunity Vacuum Framework, that we can really explain the origin of innovations.

By Patrick Planing

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About the author

Patrick Planing is a manager in the innovation department of a large car manufacturer. His work experience includes more than 10 years working on the edge of new technologies in Germany and in the Silicon Valley. Patrick holds a PhD in Innovationmanagement and an MBA in international Management.