Innovating is getting harder and harder. That is the conclusion Benjamin Jones, Professor of Strategy at Kellogg’s, reached in ‘The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man’ (2008).
The logic is unbeatable. Since human beings are born with zero knowledge, they have to be brought to the present level of knowledge through education. As time passes and people innovate, knowledge expands. Consequently, it takes more and more time to get individuals to a level from which they can innovate. Mr. Jones summed it up nicely: ‘If one is to stand on the shoulders of giants, one must first climb up their backs, and the greater the body of knowledge, the harder the climb becomes.’
The impact on innovation is tangible: age at first invention (time to invention), specialization (narrower knowledge), and teamwork (resulting from specialization) have all risen over time. The author concludes that the burden of knowledge has contributed to the declining productivity observed in recent decades.
It seems to me that the challenge to innovation identified by Mr. Jones can be extended in three directions.
The burden of knowledge, once acquired, has a perverse impact on decision-making, including when it relates to innovation. The more an individual accumulates knowledge, the more difficult they will find it to think creatively and make risky decisions. From that perspective, the knowledge accumulated to innovate impedes innovation, as discussed in ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ (2020).
The ‘curse of knowledge’ adds a source of complexity. According to research, ‘once we know something […] we find it hard to imagine not knowing it.’ The information asymmetry between those who know and those who do not is significantly underestimated by those who know. As knowledge expands, that gap does, too. The phenomenon raises a further hurdle to any educational process.
Finally, when innovators overcome both the burden and the curse of knowledge, their innovation is unlikely to have the same impact as the previous one, according to the law of diminishing returns.
Consequently, there must be an inflection point at which the growing cost of innovation outweighs its declining benefits. Beyond that very point, innovation destroys value.
Until a reset button is pressed. In ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962), Thomas Kuhn, an American philosopher, argued that science does not progress linearly through an accumulation of knowledge but through ‘paradigm shifts.’ The transition from a Ptolemaic to Copernican cosmology is a prime example, along with Albert Einstein’s relativity theory. Going forward, artificial intelligence and quantum physics are technologies that might break through the innovation ceiling.
Technological change and social progress are intertwined and form a virtuous circle. Should a technological paradigm shift fail to materialize, the implications for social dynamics would be considerable.
The response to this new challenge could be found in a new social paradigm.