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Designing Diversity for Sustained Innovation

James Evans
University of Chicago

The wisdom of crowds hinges on the independence and diversity of their members’ information and approach. Here Evans' explores how the wisdom of scientific, technological and business crowds for sustained discovery and invention operate through a process of collective abduction—the collision of deduction and induction—wherein unexpected findings stimulate innovators to forge new insights to make the surprising unsurprising.

Drawing on tens of millions of research papers and patents across the life sciences, physical sciences and patented inventions, here he shows that surprising designs and discoveries are the best predictor of outsized success and that surprising advances systematically emerge across, rather than within researchers or teams; most commonly when innovators from one field surprisingly publish problem-solving results to an audience in a distant and diverse other.

This scales insights from his prior work that shows how across innovators, teams and fields, connection and conformity is associated with reduced replication and impeded innovation. Using these principles, he simulates processes of scientific and technological search to demonstrate the relationship between crowded fields and constrained collective inferences, and he illustrates how inverting the traditional artificial intelligence approach to avoid rather than mimic human search enables the design of diversity that systematically violates established field boundaries and is associated with marked success of innovation predictions. I conclude with a discussion of prospects and challenges in a connected age for sustainable innovation through the design and preservation of difference.

Professor James Evans is the Director of Knowledge Lab, Professor of Sociology, Faculty Director of the Computational Social Science program, and member of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the University of Chicago. He is also an External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. His research focuses on the collective system of thinking and knowing, ranging from the distribution of attention and intuition, the origin of ideas and shared habits of reasoning to processes of agreement (and dispute), accumulation of certainty (and doubt), and the texture–novelty, ambiguity, topology–of human understanding. He is especially interested in innovation–how new ideas and technologies emerge–and the role that social and technical institutions (e.g., the Internet, markets, collaborations) play in collective cognition and discovery.