Sunday, June 7, 2009

The limits to innovation

The wonderful thing about words, is when you bring two or more of them together they qualify or change each other in some amazing way. For example, "space-ship", "type-writer", "auto-mobile", "mobile phone", "hair dryer" or "post-it-note".

The type-writer, for example, borrows from a whole bunch of concepts - piano keys, fabric ribbon, printer's ink, lead type, iron framework, the lever, cogs and rollers. The Germans are really good at it. Consider, for example, the German word Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän which is 41 letters long and means Danube river steam boat captain.

If you've ever been to a brainstorming session to invent a new product or service and just a few hundred ideas collect on the whiteboard, you aren't trying hard enough.

The 600,000 words in the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary language allow us to generate (600,000 x 599,999 x 599,998......x 2 x 1) combinations, which, according to WolframAlpha, the computational search engine is:

Translated into Easyspeak, the result is 10 multiplied by itself over 3 million times, which is a very big number.

How soon will we run out of combinations? Probably never. Far from exhausting new possibilities, the human race has barely scratched the surface. If every man, woman and child alive on earth today - all 6.5 billion of us - explored a brand new combination every second since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago we would have tried a mere handful of combinations (10 multiplied by itself 27 times), which means we still have a long way to go:

So for all those budding innovators out there, let's get started. There's some seriously difficult problems to solve, deserving of our brainpower. warming...species to win the to become famous. There's more possible solutions than we could ever collectively imagine. Here's a way to practice idea generation by exploring unique combinations:

Question: What radical idea, concept, product or service could you create by combining these five contradictory concepts - razzmatazz, divine, candelabra, foghorn and kaleidoscope - to solve a major world problem?

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