Project NEWS: Deciphering the origins of technological innovation

10 Feb 2017

Pompeu Fabra University launches the project NEWS: Prediction of Technological Innovation in Culturomics Networks, aimed at understanding the origins of innovation through the development of a theory of technological evolution.

Innovations are daily facts in our lives, any new trait that introduces some improvement comparing to the prior. Photosynthesis, the emergence of multicellularity or language are clear examples of evolutionary innovations. However, we lack a systematic understanding of the fundamental principles that facilitate the innovation of organisms and technology.

In both biology and technology, a continuous accumulation of changes can result in innovations. Prolific inventor Thomas Alva Edison and his team experimented with thousands of different filaments before getting a practical electric lamp. Edison did not invent the light bulb, but providing an improvement over existing designs paved the way for the establishment of the electric power system.

“We are seduced by the idea that great innovations occur in unique and unrepeatable moments,” says Sergi Valverde, a researcher at the Complex Systems Laboratory at Pompeu Fabra University and the Institute for Evolutionary Biology (UPF-CSIC). “However, prejudices on the origin of innovation limit our ability to innovate. Innovation does not appear magically, but it is the result of a process of information accumulation not very different from evolution.”

Similarities between culture and evolution

Over the years, technological and cultural evolution has been compared from different points of view, including socio-cultural evolution, memetics and other variants of cultural selection theory. These approaches differ not only in their historical development but also in their way to conceptualize the process of cultural evolution. Based on this background, the NEWS project will combine for the first time an evolutionary perspective with recent advances in complex network theory, an area that has grown up in popularity in recent years and that is in the process of expansion. This symbiosis allows to capture and analyze the structure and evolution of complex systems (biological, social and technological).

The study of complex networks is Valverde’s expertise: “These methods allow us to reconstruct maps of cultural evolution that are similar to the phylogenetic trees used in evolutionary biology.” These structures show statistical regularities that can be interpreted “for the development of a theory that unifies the emergence of innovations in different fields”. An advantage of this type of study is the availability of large databases with very detailed information about the process of technological innovation.

The researchers hope to use the results of the project to optimize document search algorithms. “Among our goals is to improve the search engines of inventions databases, and to develop systematic methods for the prediction of innovations”.

The NEWS project will last for four years and is funded by the State Research Agency of MINEICO / FEDER and the European Union.

See the original post here.