Does the lone inventor have a role anymore?
the lone inventor
Darrell Mann

Written by Darrell Mann

The last couple of years have seen the publication of a strong surge of books on ‘where innovations come from’. One of the more interesting of the cluster was ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ by prolific US innovation author, Steven Johnson (Reference 1). In essence, the thesis of Where Good Ideas Come from was that networks were the most important source of innovation. In more specific terms, the book gave the clear hint that Open Innovation was the most likely way for organizations to create new products and services.

One of the things we liked best about the book was the way in which Johnson set about analyzing a host of world-changing innovations through the last 600 years of history and classifying them into a simple 2x2 matrix. That matrix divided the world of innovation into four quadrants as detailed in Figure 1:

Figure 1: The Four-Quadrant World Of Innovation

Figure 1: The Four-Quadrant World Of Innovation

Essentially what Johnson was interested in was whether innovations tended to come from individuals or networks, and whether they came from people focusing on a market need (i.e. the classic ‘necessity is the mother of invention’) or from people working in a non-market focused manner – i.e. people like Einstein ‘doing science’ for the love of it.

Figure 2 shows a summary of how the innovations Johnson looked at sat within each of the four quadrants, at the three different times in history he studied:

Figure 2: Innovation Sources

Figure 2: Innovation Sources  

Back in the 1400s, Johnson’s analysis reveals, the lone-scientist dabbling in the laboratory was the dominant source of innovation. But then, over time, although that type of person continues to be an important source of innovation, the dominant innovation source has shifted significantly away from the individual and towards the network.

The concluding chapter in Johnson’s book is about the ‘Fourth Quadrant’ – the overall dominant source of innovation according to his research over the course of the last 200 years. This is the quadrant relating to networks of individuals working on non-market-focused research. Tim Berners-Lee and his fellow Internet-creating workers being the iconic illustration of what the quadrant is all about. Berners-Lee might have taken the credit (the media needs a hero!), but quite simply, he couldn’t have created the Internet without the input of many other people. The fact that this network was trying to solve a specific internal communications problem rather than anything with any commercial, ‘let’s-sell-this’, motivation is also a significant feature of the Fourth Quadrant innovation story according to Johnson’s thesis: most innovations come from networks of non-monetarily motivated people.

Well, aside from liking the way Johnson writes and the thoroughness of his historical analysis, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ didn’t make it into our Best of the Month slot. The main reason for that being our feeling that W. Brian Arthur’s book ‘The Nature Of Technology’ (Reference 2) was the best of the ‘where innovations come from’ surge. What Arthur picked up that Johnson didn’t was the fact that there are two very distinct types on innovation:

  • Discoveries – things that were always there, but we didn’t know about (e.g. the Earth spins around the Sun, or magnetic fields.)
  • Combinations – innovations that came about through the combination of two or more known things.

It seemed like a good idea to set about re-classifying Johnson’s analysis to take into account these two very different innovation start-points. Figure 3 presents the results of that analysis:

Figure 3: Innovation Sources – Separating Discoveries & Combinations

Figure 3: Innovation Sources – Separating Discoveries & Combinations

The results of this study highlight what we think are important caveats on Johnson’s suggested significance of the 4th Quadrant. Namely:

  1. The large majority of Discoveries come from non-market focused activities
  2. Networks are the dominant source of combination innovations
  3. The Individual inventor continues to be the major Discoverer of new things.

Which, reading between the lines with an Open Innovation focus, seems to suggest that organizations that come to rely heavily on ‘the crowd’ to answer their innovation needs will be highly likely to compromise their ability to generate Discovery innovations. Either that, or Open Innovation needs to start addressing the potentially dangerous hole in its overall philosophy. Meanwhile, the lone-dabbler, tinkering in his (or her) garden shed can take comfort from the fact ‘we still need you’.


  1. Johnson, S., ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation’, Allen Lane, Penguin, 2010.
  2. Arthur, W.B., ‘The Nature Of Technology: What It Is And How It Evolves’, Allen Lane, Penguin, 2009.