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How can we be more innovative?

The economics, neuroscience, and socio-cultural psychology of innovation


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Murto Hilali

3 years ago | 9 min read

Despite the constant hoopla in the news about “how fast we’re progressing”, it’s possible we’re not advancing nearly as fast as we were a hundred years ago.

Economist Robert Gordon says that innovation is slowing down due to a number of factors, including stagnation in the discovery/development of general-purpose technologies that can propel the entire economy.

Whether or not you think this is true, the point remains — everyone would like to be more innovative. Here are a few ways we can hack/encourage innovation in academia, our brains, and our culture:

  • Scientific stagnation is a venomous snake in 19th century India(Economics)
  • Get swole, get smart— (Neuroscience)
  • Communication + diversity = profits — (Cultural psychology)

The Economics of Innovation

Illustration by Murto Hilali

When a solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse, it’s called the cobra effect 🐍

During the British Raj, the government in Delhi was concerned about the city’s cobra population. You see, not only are cobras notoriously racist dinner guests, but they happen to be deadly and venomous as well.

(Sounds like my ex, heyooo!)

The government tried to reduce the cobra population by offering a bounty:

Kill a cobra, get a reward!

It worked: utopia = fewer cobras + a flourishing cobra-killing gig economy.

Then some people started breeding cobras just so they could kill them and cash in the rewards — it’s like Apple removing the headphone jack so they can sell you AirPods.

When the government found out, they scrapped the program. What do you do if you’re a snake breeder with a bunch of worthless snakes? Duh, you set them free. Now, the Delhi cobra population was even higher than it was before the program.

In economics, perverse incentives are systems that have results contrary to their original goal 🔀

The cobra effect is an example, and there may be one in academia. Academics provide much of the innovation that pushes society forward, but their incentive systems might put that in danger.

Scientists are often compensated (tenure, pay, through academic clout) based on the number of citations their work gets. More citations = more impact. Search engines like Google Scholar make these numbers very obvious:

Search for “cardiovascular disease” on Google Scholar, papers published since 2016 | Screenshot by Author

A recent paper by Bhattacharya and Packelen (2020) argues that…

“The incentives created by the focus on citations leads researchers to pursue more established research paths, with stagnant science as the by-product.”

New and exploratory paths in science get fewer citations but lay the groundwork for huge scientific breakthroughs later 📈

Exhibit A: CRISPR. The breakthrough technology that enables gene editing and will advance biomedicine exponentially — but the first paper that recognized what we know today as CRISPR only got 24 citations in the first 15 years after its publishing.

This is a model of the lifecycle of an impactful scientific idea:

  • Scientists in the exploration phase will lay the foundations for its advancement, but won’t get many contemporary citations.
  • In the breakthrough phase, new scientists flock to the idea and publish high-profile papers that get lots of citations.
  • The incremental advancement phase consists of scientists figuring out the details of the now mature scientific idea. Research in this phase is very likely to yield a discovery (however small) which in turn attracts a lot of scientists.

Many researchers in one area mean your paper will probably get many citations. Academia thus rewards incremental advance over novel scientific exploration, which draws even more researchers to the area — a vicious cycle.

To be clear, all phases/areas are valuable — the problem is that the current incentive system doesn’t reward exploratory scientists as much as it should.

We should measure novelty if we want to reward it 📏

Bhattacharya and Packelen suggest we quantify the edge factor (how exploratory the research paper is) as a function of the novelty of the words/word sequences found in its text.

That would mean low and high impact novel science would still get rewarded. But to prevent researchers from pursuing just any new direction they want, these rewards should go hand-in-hand with the existing citation incentive system.

This way, researchers have the incentive to pursue novel/exploratory ideas that they believe will also ultimately result in breakthrough discoveries. This system may just be the way to kill the cobras of stagnation.

The Neuroscience of Innovation

Illustration by Murto Hilali

What we call innovation is largely facilitated by what neuroscientists and psychologists call insight. Becoming more innovative is thus a question of facilitating insight: a solution that combines knowledge in a novel way.

Brain games ✨

We love having ‘Aha!’ moments so much, there’s actually a fairly significant body of research dedicated to understanding its neural correlates.

A study by Jung-Beeman et al. showed the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus is active when people have those “insight” solutions. This part of the brain is associated with connecting distinct areas of information — makes sense right?

There are actually a few more sub-processes like cognitive conflict and restructuring that play a role, but those are for another day. For now, here are a few brain hacks to increase insightful thinking:

Run, swim, drive, and workout 🏃🏽‍♂️

When you’re stressed, scared, angry, or sad, the emotional functions of your brain draw energy from the executive and creative parts of the brain.

That means your neocortex, the part of the brain that facilitates higher function (like conscious thought and language) isn’t getting love it needs.

There’s a reason you have your best ideas in the shower — water is very calming. Anything that relaxes your mind (exercising, driving, running) will put you in a better position to have those ‘Aha!’ moments.

Prepare your brain 🧠

Talking to people in different sectors, with different experiences, will give you new info to make connections between. Simply ask a friend in a different field for their perspective on the problem you’re trying to innovate on. That way, you don’t need to have high-level knowledge in two completely different domains to make connections between.

If you do want to be that person, well… that’s a superpower. I write about building out this kind of knowledge/skill set here.

Another way to prepare your brain for thinking is via sensory gating. Close your eyes, don’t play any music, sit still. This conserves energy for the insight-brain.

Be in the right environment 🌳

Your physical environment subconsciously impacts your thinking. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine, and he credited his trip to the Basilica of Assisi in Italy with clearing his mind enough to give him the inspiration that led to his infamous discovery. High ceilings tell your brain it’s time for big picture thinking; being outside, surrounded by blue and green, helps with the same thing.

In all fairness, a trip to Umbria, Italy, might not be the greatest idea right now — but a short walk should be just fine.

Compound word association problems 📚

AKA remote association tasks, or RATs, these are small brain teasers that can exercise your insight muscle. Given 3 different words, you have to identify 1 key word that can be associated with all 3. I’ll give you an example:

wagon / rubber / aid

Go on, try to guess! I’ll wait. Okay, I’m done waiting.

The answer is BAND

bandwagon / rubber band / band aid

That one was pretty tough, but this one’s even harder.

sense / courtesy / place

Wait for it… wait for it… WAIT FOR IT…

It’s COMMON.

common sense / common courtesy / commonplace

Activities like these force your brain to make connections across the four corners of your mind, great for exercising that anterior temporal gyrus. You can find plenty online, but here are some of my favourites (try them out):

  • right / cat / carbon
  • tank / hill / secret
  • cane / daddy / plum

Try to do one of these every day, and you’ll be a regular Steve Jobs in no time. The better-trained your mind is, the faster you’ll be able to solve these riddles.

The Socio-cultural Psychology of Innovation

Illustration by Murto Hilali

You’ll often hear CEOs talking about a culture of innovation at their companies — but we extend this idea to nations on the whole. The Hofstede index is basically a socio-cultural Myers-Briggs personality test for countries; based on the results of surveys done over years, these countries are assigned values on the scales of various cultural dimensions.

Risk tolerance and uncertainty avoidance 🎲

Countries with a high uncertainty avoidance score tend to avoid ambiguous situations. Examples: a suspicious Juicy Lucy burger at a seedy fast food store (those things should NOT exist). Greece and Mexico have pretty low scores and rank 40th and 56th on the Global Innovation Index (GII) respectively.

These cultures tend to face uncertainties with steadfast and traditional rules — not the best environment for innovation.

An adjacent aspect is risk tolerance. In innovation hubs like the US, failure generally isn’t seen as a bad thing, and that encourages entrepreneurship. In fact, VCs would rather invest in a founder with one failed startup than one who was starting their first company — is this the equivalent of the jock with the troubled past getting all the lady-love in high school?

Companies like Google and Facebook embrace failure — throw everything at a wall and see what sticks, move fast and break things. While some of the things that were broken include the US democracy, we can’t deny these are some of the most innovative companies on the planet.

Look into the crystal ball 🔮

Innovative cultures also tend to be interested in science and technology — they also have a more hopeful attitude towards the future, and are willing to accept risks associated with innovation if they know the potential benefits. Europe INNOVA calls this cultural capital, and the Netherlands have a LOT.

Included in this is an openness to new ideas. This one should be obvious right? Those ideas can come from an investment in R&D, education, and…

Cognitive diversity 🧠

A heterogeneous population can be very useful for fostering new ideas and innovating. Cognitive diversity is like Batman’s utility belt, containing these four secret weapons:

  • Diverse perspectives, or different ways of looking at a problem.
  • Diverse interpretations, or different ways of categorizing those perspectives.
  • Diverse heuristics, which are different ways of generating solutions.
  • Diverse predictive models, or ways inferring cause/effect relationships.

This is also a prime exhibit of why a diverse workforce for your firm is inherently beneficial, even if you have to navigate awkward and marginally racist water cooler conversation. Speaking of, innovative cultures have a strong…

Openness of communication 🤝🏽

All those new ideas and perspectives are useless if they’re not shared. When individuals hoard knowledge for themselves, we’re all worse off. Some of Hofstede’s dimensions can help us understand this: the power-distance index (PDI) is a measure of how willing people of a culture are to accept a hierarchical society and obey authority.

Studies have shown that high-PDI cultures tend to have limited communication between people and their superiors — even in places like doctor’s clinics, where communication is critical, or Korean cockpit culture (look it up, it’s really interesting). Low PDI-nations tend to question authorities and the status quo more, which inevitably leads to disruption and innovation.

Open communication is also facilitated by high levels of trust between people, like there is in Finland. Many attribute this willingness to trust other Finns to the homogeneity of the country’s population — this directly conflicts with what I said earlier about cognitive diversity, which brings me to an important point…

There are some major caveats ✳

  • Finland ranks among the lowest when it comes to ethnic fractionalization, but highest in terms favorable socio-cultural environments for innovation in the EU.
  • Germany has a fairly high uncertain avoidance index (65) but ranks 9th on the GII.
  • China’s PDI is very high (80) but it ranks 14th on the GII.

No one cultural dimension fully determines a country’s capacity for innovation. If we scale that down to our own personalities, we can conclude that no one character trait will guarantee/completely destroy the possibility of you being an innovator.

You can be introverted OR extroverted, an intuitive OR sensory thinker. (I would say being a risk-taker + being open to new ideas is prerequisite however — after that, be whoever you want!)

So how can we be more innovative?

  • We should reward scientists for research into novel areas as well as established ones.
  • Activate your right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus by sensory gating, learning new perspectives, relaxing your brain by running/swmming/driving, and playing RATs.
  • Develop a culture of open communication, risk tolerance, openness to new ideas, and optimism about the future.

Why does this matter to me?

  • Your relationships probably getting stale because new experiences aren’t getting rewarded — give your partner a socially distanced air high-five whenever you try something new together.
  • Now you have an excuse to leave work for a walk, play word games on business hours, and talk to that cute person in the marketing department because you want “gain new perspectives”.
  • Being ‘innovative’ doesn’t mean ticking off boxes on a checklist. There are different kinds of innovators, and you may be one of them.

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