Hybrids (2): combinations and connections

New ideas and technologies are often hybrids. Sometimes we take quantum leaps and invent entirely new technologies, but more often they seem to emerge at the intersection of existing ideas, tools or ways of doing things.

Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution is full of examples of how this happened by accident and design throughout the evolution of modern computers.

Tim O’Reilly has called this ‘combinatorial innovation’. Here’s Rob Reid describing it in an interview with O’Reilly:

Combinatorial innovation is taking completely disparate technologies that have arisen, and weaving them together in ways that create tremendous and unanticipated new things which really magnify what society’s gaining from those new technologies.

So you might say with Uber and Lyft, we’ve suddenly all got GPS in our pockets, for reasons that have nothing to do with ride handling, and we’ve got this mobile payment system that Braintree or Stripe or whoever created for completely unrelated reasons, and suddenly they combine into something society shifting that no-one saw coming – ride sharing, in this case.

You almost get amazing things for free that used to be impossible or wildly expensive by coupling together a few other new things that just kind of happened to be lying around, so to speak. And maybe these new things can become an ingredient to something even more amazing, which may create a lot more jobs and social good.

I think the example you use with Uber and Lyft, is that even in a worse case scenario from a jobs standpoint with self-driving cars… for example… a lot of jobs will be displaced… but the cost of a ride might also come down by 80%. So while there’s a lot of economic dislocation , a whole realm of new services can arise that are based on the sudden, extraordinary affordability and ubiquity of transportation, much as the abundance and cheapness of wool [in the industrial revolution] led to the rise of fashion. The world laid off a lot of weavers, but through combinatorial innovation a whole slew of opportunities arose.

Rob Reid, talking about the ideas of Tim O’Reilly on his After Hours podcase

Just afterwards, O’Reilly said this.

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