top of page

The Burden Of Knowledge

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.

168 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

The Big Bad Wolf That Wasn't

Twelve months ago, 2022 was named ‘The Punch.’ The events of that year exposed the structural vulnerabilities of the prevailing global operating system in areas such as energy, food, and defence. What

Outside Insiders

Social sciences frequently delve into the dichotomy of insiders and outsiders when discussing individuals’ capacity to comprehend and authority to comment on groups they do not belong to, be it based

The Genius Case For Nature

The next few quarters are expected to be slow, economically speaking. As summarized in ‘The Normalization Mirage,’ inflation is abating at the expense of growth following a process anticipated months


bottom of page