Why some technological combinations are more likely to drive innovation than others

Authors: Frank van der Wouden*, University of Hong Kong, Hyejin Youn, Kellogg School of Management - Northwestern University, Gianluca Carnabuci, ESMT
Topics: Economic Geography
Keywords: technological change, innovation, combination, patents, adjacent possible
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2020
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Director's Row H, Sheraton, Plaza Building, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The (re-)combinant nature of invention generates the exponentially increasing number of possible technological configurations, but only a small fraction of them has been explored and exploited. Why are certain technologies chosen to be combined while others left out? Is there any other explanation than physical constraints imposed by nature laws? We analyze the co-occurrence of technology classes in the US patent records over two centuries by constructing a series of networks of technological (re-)combinations in time. The network structure represents which combinations have been explored, and exploited more than others, and thus allows us to define a comprehensive distance metric of the possible technological configuration. We report three key results: (1) novel combinations at network distance two – the adjacent possible – are most likely to occur in subsequent years with decaying probabilities as distance increases; (2) actors with experience in brokering technology classes are most likely to produce novel combinations at network distance two; and (3) these adjacent possible patents produced by brokering agents outperform the patents produced by agents without or with non-brokering experience. These findings provide important novel insights into the drivers of innovations and technological change.

Abstract Information

This abstract is already part of a session. View the session here.

To access contact information login