Santa Fe Institute

A theory of invention and innovation

A useful distinction is that between invention and innovation (mouse over for more)

Whether it’s the first red feather on a black wing or the emergence of a market economy, all “newness” has its start somewhere. The ability to innovate is, in fact, a defining feature of complex systems.

An important distinction, made by social and biological scientists alike, is that between invention and innovation. Invention is the creation of something new, while an innovation is a successful invention…a transformative sort of newness. Both are essential for evolutionary processes in technology, biology, and social systems, and both have long been of interest to SFI.

We believe that just as Darwin’s Theory describes evolutionary processes in biology, so too might a Theory of Innovation describe the emergence and survival of novelty across the technological, social, and biological domains. The origins of life and of multicellularity, the evolutionary dimensions of social and cultural change, the drivers of technological change, the transformation of knowledge systems, the development of complex societies, the role of energy in human development, and the formation of ecological and social networks are just a few of the themes that animate our research.

As we seek quantifiable parallels across these diverse systems, we ask—what are the factors, the processes that come together to create innovations? Where does novelty come from? Like all SFI science, our research aims beyond the metaphorical. Through empirical, modeling, and theoretical research, we seek a quantitative, possibly predictive theory of novelty. More