Nature is well-known for coming up with novel and efficient solutions to various situations. While survival of the fittest doesn’t really apply to ideas and creativity, perhaps there is something we can learn about nature’s processes for providing species with the best tools for the job. There are at least four known processes in nature’s gene variation (Sternberg, 1999, Handbook of Creativity, 155):
The processes are…
- Mutation – a physical event that changes a small part of an organism’s nucleotide.
- Recombination – mix and match of gene variants from parents during cell formation. A sort of A + B = C type of scenario
- Migration – the transfer of genes with novel variants from one population to another
- Sexual Reproduction – How combination of genes is handled
We can uses these processes as a basis for a pragmatic approach to coming up with new ideas.
- Mutation – take an existing idea and tweak it
- Recombination – take two ideas and combine aspects of them to form a new idea
- Migration – take an idea from one domain and use it in another
- Sex – learn what has worked well in the past and what hasn’t – capture and track our ideas
What do we need in order to make this happen? For all processes mentioned above, the most consistent requirement is knowledge of what has been done before. In processes 1 and 2 this could be domain-specific knowledge (e.g. how to build a suspension bridge). In process 3, this is necessarily knowledge outside the domain we are working in. For example, knowledge about internal structure of bones in mammals may provide fresh ideas on creating a steel bridge (note: many have already been inspired by the structure in nature, see here and here(more technical)). For Point 4 we need knowledge of what has been done before, but we need the ability to capture and analyse lessons learned. This means we need a framework for how we look at past ideas. It means we don’t come up with ideas and let them go. It means we revisit them with a critical eye.
What environmental properties do we need from this? Not-surprisingly, it is the sort of things I have mentioned in previous posts. We need access to the right tools and information. We need the sense of freedom to spend time researching and gaining this knowledge. We need private spaces to study. We also need to connect. We need to know what others around us are doing. We need to accidentally bump into someone working on something completely different and learn from them. We need to have experienced people who explain how things have been done and we need the inspiration to be able to question whether these reasons are still the best. We need systems for revisiting these things and something that tells us that this knowledge exists around us. We clearly need flexibility for all this to happen, but we need specific and clear tasks to focus on.
That sounds like a lot to ask. The helpful thing, however, is we need less and less of this push towards innovation from our environments if we know some processes we can apply by our own volition.
Feature image by NOAA Ocean Explorer.