How do ideas come about?

New idea development pathway

Before a new original idea is discovered it can be thought of as in fact being in existence already, just that it exists within a yet unknown ‘void’ in solution space where it has not yet been found, studied and defined. The same solution space also has defined products containing known developed ideas, such as the labels ‘A’ and ‘B’ on our pathway here, where the voids co-exist alongside these established products. A newly discovered, previously unknown, idea goes through a development pathway, before it is released back into solution space as a known idea. The solution space can be thought of as wrapping around the idea development pathway, with the same space in fact existing both before and after idea development. Solution space has near infinitely more undiscovered voids than it has discovered solutions. The future promises to reveal many yet undiscovered ideas to us, on the basis of which we can discover yet even more.

In some respect, the discovery of a truly original new idea, which has no similarity to anything prior, can only happen by chance or accident. It is however possible to set up conditions for increasing the chance of discovery. The kind of creativity that we mostly apply when developing new products or services is an inquisitive transfer, recombination or evolution of largely pre-existing ideas and knowledge. The generalised types of thinking involved in creating new ideas may include:

    • Random search, including by an automated idea generator.
    • Trends analysis.
    • Group stimulated search (brainstorming).
    • Systematic testing of many potential relationships, to find new ones between previously unrelated ideas.
    • Exploring analogies to similar technical knowledge.
    • Exploring analogies to natural systems.

It is worth distinguishing that R&D and D&D occur in different arenas on the above pathway graph, where what we term ideas use different routes to market. Academic research is largely concerned with looking into the voids on the left-hand side of the development pathway graph, for purpose of discovering and studying new original ideas. The dashed line drawn around “Academic research” is shaped with its gravity towards the yet undiscovered, to reflect where the most money and brain-power are spent. Academic reward and prestige come from making new discovery. The academic researchers therefore tend to let go of ideas before they reach a concept stage, to refocus their efforts on making yet more new discovery.

In the main, commercial D&D tends to stay well clear of the solution space voids, because these are too investment demanding and too risky to be economically viable. This commercial strategy also reflects what its customers are asking for – namely the already known. Commercial Design & Development is therefore biased for reusing existing know solutions. A commercial D&D project is largely concerned with looking at existing products, based on mature ideas in the right-hand side of our development pathway graph, and taking them back into development for rework and improvement. Occasionally, they may come up with new ideas, by looking at narrow gaps between existing products, such as the small strip of void illustrated above between the labels ’A’ and ‘B’. However, this is not the same new frontier discoveries that academic researchers are aiming for.

There are examples of academia and commerce stretching their reach sufficiently to meet up, but these are the exception rather than the norm. In many fields, where society has an interest in promising new ideas being successfully taken across the divide, various public funding initiatives exist to support collaborative knowledge transfer. ‘Spin out’ to universities science parks and Capital Venture companies can exist as a knowledge transfer bridge in this area; but they are relatively low in quantity. Generally, it can therefore take a very long time for original new ideas to evolve and reach the commercial market.