Going back to the observation that so many people stop desiring, requiring and needing *inputs* in their everyday life… (Or, how to justify a twitter addiction and a wandering path of life and work)
the lesson of human history is that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking.
Ultimately, all increases in standards of living can be traced to discoveries of more valuable arrangements for the things in the earth’s crust and atmosphere… No amount of savings and investment, no policy of macroeconomic fine-tuning, no set of tax and spending incentives can generate sustained economic growth unless it is accompanied by the countless large and small discoveries that are required to create more value from a fixed set of natural resources.
It is this combination, this injection of something new that is for Romer the engine of an idea’s value:
When a useful mixture is discovered… The discovery makes possible the creation of economic value. It lets us combine raw materials of low intrinsic value into mixtures that are far more valuable… In this fundamental sense, ideas make growth and development possible.
The plenitude of possibilities
The wonderful thing is that once one recognises the truth about the nature of ideas being new combinations, the resources at our disposal increase exponentially.
To appreciate the potential for discovery, we need only consider the possibility that an extremely small fraction of the vast number of possible mixtures available to us may be valuable.
To get a sense of the possibilities open to us, consider that a mere 10 building blocks or ingredients gives us 1013 combinations. Twenty building blocks gives us 1,048,555 combinations. Forty gives us 1,099,511,627,735. And of course each of these new combinations in turn expands the number of building blocks to choose from. It really is exponential.
Of course, not all of these combinations will prove to be successful or desirable. Nonetheless as Brian Arthur reminds us, even if the chances are only one in a million that something useful will result, the possibilities still scale as (2N-N-1)/1,000000. Or approximately 2N-20. The possibilities – for newness, improvement, progress, surprise – are truly vast. In the words of Professor Romer, this is “combinatorial explosion.”
Perhaps a more simple example will suffice. All matter in the universe is constructed from just 92 elements.
The chefs Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of the restaurant The Fat Duck, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se, and the writer Harold McGee are all at the forefront of what one might call the science of cooking – understanding the nature of ingredients, their interactions, and how cooking processes work. In 2006 they put forward what they termed ‘the international agenda for great cooking’, and while its focus is food, it could well serve as the agenda and manifesto for anyone in the business of ideas and creativity:
We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.
This advocacy of openness to all the world’s resources, methods and traditions and of the drawing upon on all human knowledge is precisely what is at the heart of any creative enterprise, whether in a restaurant, a laboratory, studio, or an advertising agency.
Crucially, we can – whether as individuals or organizations – be purposeful and deliberate in our quest for inspiration, rather than leave it to chance. If we are interested in the broader world around us, if we engage with it actively, if we pursue passions and interests beyond the necessities and demands of the every day, we stand a better chance of developing something new and interesting.
Just as Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee advocated an open-ness to all the world’s resources, the adman James Webb Young wrote of this need to be constantly accumulating raw material from the world to bring to bear upon the creation of ideas:
The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope… It has little pieces of coloured glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical patterns. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.
Feeding the kaleidoscope, ensuring that we increase the chances of ‘striking combinations’ at every turn is a powerful visualisation of how creativity requires stimulating and sustaining. The more we are open to the raw material that surrounds us, and the new creative possibilities that they carry, the greater the chance of something new arising.