Sep 19, 2009

From New York to New Guinea

Seems to me that, there are two ends to the spectrum of generating new ideas. In one, there's the cliched lone scientist messing about in a dingy underground lab under a bulb, trying to uncover the light. In the other, the innovator is in the middle of a teeming bazaar of smells and currents, a place full of distractions and opinions, where sometimes, there's just too much light.

It's like species evolving in New Guinea and New York. The former allows the relative isolation that allows nature to fork off into completely new directions in the presence of unconventional constraints . In the latter, species are constantly intermingling with each other, smashing into each other and producing new forms in response to more common constraints.

So the New Guinea innovation has more time to blossom, fewer people to nip it in the bud by being critical. But it could be less likely to survive when the more inhabited parts of Earth come visiting. New York innovations get brutally crushed down, but this happens early. The good ones sometimes cross-breed with other ideas from other people, and the ones that survive are hardy organisms, because they just have had to escape being crushed under so many feet.

However, New Guinean ideas are likely to be truly radical, while New Yorker ideas might just make a quick buck on the sidewalk to take advantage of the next flavour of the week. Ideas from New Guinea tend to remain unnoticed unless they are discovered by dashing explorers, while New Yorker ideas can be on TV and in your email.

Books on innovation suggest ideas from the melting pot of New York are more likely to succeed (or perhaps, more likely to fail early). That shouldn't mean there is no place for the life-forms of the remote island of New Guinea, but not everyone should be doing that, for the post-Victorian world has a lot less patience.

However, do most people expect innovations to come out of New Guinea, because it's so exotic? Most scientists would find it easier to live in New Guinea (as long as the pay cheque and the internet bandwidth is assured!), but fewer light bulbs have come out of New Guinea than New York. But if you are looking for a bird of paradise, head down to Oceania.

In the end, it could be comparing apples to oranges: scientists need New Guinea while innovators need New York. The first step to the right island would be to know who we really are.


Anonymous said...

Similar to the Lata-MS comparison that we tried some time ago?


Unknown said...

Not v. sure - I don't remember that comparison in detail :-)

Anoop Kunchukuttan said...

Great one:) Probably, New York brings on its incremental improvements from radical ideas that New Guinea provides. And pays the cheques in return for that!

Comparing innovators to scientists - here is a nice essay I had read, by Paul Graham (

Moral of the story:
Hackers start original, and get good, and scientists start good, and get original.

Unknown said...

Anoop: thanks for the comment, and thanks for the PG link!