Imitation and Novelty in Product Development

Here’s an extract from the third article by Ted Lewis and Richard Bergin from this special Human-Human Stigmergy issue.

  1. A human stigmergy framework for product development

Many investigators over the past century have attempted to quantify human innovation as a property of social organizations such as corporations as well as individual entrepreneurs. Andergassen et al. argue that innovation appears in two forms – from invention and diffusion:

The first is an exogenous thrust imparted to the system by a random innovative arrival whilst the second is due mainly to innovation that takes place through diffusion of information (Andergassen et al., 2006).

For the purposes of this paper, “random innovation” is a type of novelty, and “diffusion of information” is a type of imitation. In fact, novelty appears whenever an unexpected breakthrough “randomly occurs”, and imitation appears whenever an idea is copied, regardless of how it arrives.

Andergassen et al. further claim that occurrences of product innovation obey a long-tailed distribution, or Levy flight in time, because diffusion of information accumulates until reaching a point of self-organized criticality, SOC. Then an avalanche of copycat products mimics products developed from the initial “random innovation”. The sudden appearance of the Apple iPhone and iPad are apparent examples: the iPhone appeared as a random innovation and was quickly imitated by an avalanche of copycats. Thus, product development is a series of episodic “random innovations” or novelties, followed by an avalanche of copycats, or imitations.

Ferrary and Granovetter (2009) further develop the idea of the spread of product innovation through imitative diffusion by modeling Silicon Valley and other highly creative industrial commons as social networks. Venture capital firms supply “information diffusion” services as well as money, acting as a kind of transmitter of intellectual viruses through their social network:

The presence of venture capital (hereafter VC) firms in an innovative cluster opens potential specific interactions with other agents in the network (universities, large companies, laboratories) that determine a particular dynamic of innovation. In this perspective, what is distinctive about Silicon Valley is its complete and robust complex system of innovation supported by social networks of interdependent economic agents in which the VC firms have a specific function (Ferrary and Granovetter, 2009, p. ??).

In this model, imitation and novelty is a human activity akin to stigmergy in the animal kingdom, whereby imitative actions (work) are stimulated by social interactions initiated by previous novel and imitative actions (work). What distinguishes the Silicon Valley entrepreneur from others is the social network embodied in the VC firm. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur leverages this advantage to “out-innovate” entrepreneurs from other industrial commons. It is this stigmergic work done by networking that makes Silicon Valley more productive.

If product development is a byproduct of invention (novelty) and information obtained through stigmergic social network diffusion (imitation), then it should be possible to demonstrate the machinery of the evolutionary process itself. The sudden appearance of an “innovative product” such as the Apple iPhone should be traced to earlier novel and imitative products, etc. Furthermore, assuming an idea is transmitted by a social network of cooperating actors (diffusion of information for the purpose of imitation), it should be possible to demonstrate and model the machinery of product development as a form of human stigmergy.

This paper develops a stigmergic model of product development based on the forgoing concepts of novelty and imitation in social networks. It postulates that invention is a group activity, rather than the result of an isolated inventor working in isolation. Furthermore, the group dynamic is stigmergic, meaning that each advance incorporates previous novelties and imitations. No advance is an isolated step. The process of combining novelty and imitation is modeled as a self-organizing network of stigmergic “breakthroughs”. Some breakthroughs simply combine existing product designs (imitation), while others combine new and novel features with existing designs.


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