Connections Between People Drive Innovation

Consider Jared Diamond’s discussion of the lost technology of Tasmania:

Tasmania is just an island of modest size, but it was the most extreme outpost of the most extreme continent, and it illuminates a big issue in the evolution of all human societies. Tasmania lies 130 miles southeast of Australia. When it was first visited by Europeans in 1642, Tasmania was occupied by 4,000 hunter/gatherers related to mainland Australians, but with the simplest technology of any recent people on Earth. Unlike mainland Aboriginal Australians, Tasmanians couldn’t start a fire; they had no boomerangs, spear throwers, or shields; they had no bone tools, no specialized stone tools, and no compound tools like an axe head mounted on a handle; they couldn’t cut down a tree or hollow out a canoe; they lacked sewing to make sewn clothing, despite Tasmania’s cold winter climate with snow; and, incredibly, though they lived mostly on the sea coast, the Tasmanians didn’t catch or eat fish. How did those enormous gaps in Tasmanian material culture arise?

The answer stems from the fact that Tasmania used to be joined to the southern Australian mainland at Pleistocene times of low sea level, until that land bridge was severed by rising sea level 10,000 years ago. People walked out to Tasmania tens of thousands of years ago, when it was still part of Australia. Once that land bridge was severed, though, there was absolutely no further contact of Tasmanians with mainland Australians or with any other people on Earth until European arrival in 1642, because both Tasmanians and mainland Australians lacked watercraft capable of crossing those 130-mile straits between Tasmania and Australia. Tasmanian history is thus a study of human isolation unprecedented except in science fiction – namely, complete isolation from other humans for 10,000 years. Tasmania had the smallest and most isolated human population in the world. If population size and isolation have any effect on accumulation of inventions, we should expect to see that effect in Tasmania.

If all those technologies that I mentioned, absent from Tasmania but present on the opposite Australian mainland, were invented by Australians within the last 10,000 years, we can surely conclude at least that Tasmania’s tiny population didn’t invent them independently. Astonishingly, the archaeological record demonstrates something further: Tasmanians actually abandoned some technologies that they brought with them from Australia and that persisted on the Australian mainland. For example, bone tools and the practice of fishing were both present in Tasmania at the time that the land bridge was severed, and both disappeared from Tasmania by around 1500 B.C. That represents the loss of valuable technologies: fish could have been smoked to provide a winter food supply, and bone needles could have been used to sew warm clothes.

It’s an astonishing story. Isolation causes not just a lack of innovation, but a reversion in technology. Critical technologies, like those needed for catching and eating fish disappeared through the years of isolation. Now that Tasmania is connected back up to the rest of the world, current technology has diffused back in, and we even occasionally have great new ideas come out of Tasmania. Connections are the key.

In order to innovate, we need sources of new ideas, which come through connections with other people. We need to maintain the skills needed to keep the technologies current, which also come through connections. And the ideas need to spread, which again comes through connections.

Connecting ideas is the core of innovation, but without connecting ideas to people, there is no innovation at all. The lone inventor sitting in a garage is a myth. Innovation is social. It always has been, and it always will be – just look at Tasmania for proof.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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16 thoughts on “Connections Between People Drive Innovation

  1. Hi Tim,

    Great historical example – awesome.

    At the other extreme are the effect of towns & cities on innovation through history and today the connections possible on-line.

    Creativity & innovation are about connecting stuff up – usually by people.

    As the Net virtualises connections, free from the constraints of physical we could anticipate an era of unprecedented innovation.

  2. Thanks Martin! The cities effect is a really interesting one. My colleague Mark Dodgson has started doing some research on cities & innovation, and obviously this is a topic that’s been on the table dating back at least to Jane Jacobs. But you’re right – that is one method for radically increasing connections. The net too – I’ve found it fascinating to watch how interacting through twitter & the blog have both contributed enormously to my increase in creative thinking recently…

  3. Interesting historical account of isolation, and its application to invention, diffusion and retention. I agree with your analysis that more new ideas are likely to be generated through contact and connection with more people. I’d add the caveat – that I suspect is implicit in your post – that the contact and connection with more _new_ people may an important ingredient, i.e., it is the diversity and not just the number of potential connections that promotes innovation.

  4. That’s an outstanding point Joe. It’s not really implicit in the post, but you’re absolutely correct about that.

  5. Great story and excellent points Tim

    Yes, isolation does that indeed. Whether that isolation is caused by physical separation, or logical separation. Creating 10-20 people departments in an organisation, having 10 management layers between “grunt” and CEO, separating Business from IT, it all does that

    In some governmental and semi-governmental institiutions the distance is so great (helped by functional, departmental as well as physical separation at the same time) that one side of the organisation will actually call the other side “customer”. Yes, customer

    Needless to say that what is called innovation in those places is nothing more than turning standard products and ideas into specials: reversion indeed

  6. Interesting example! Does Diamond speculate on where the Tasmanians re-allocated their attention and resources to? e.g. was another food source easier to collect than fish (e.g. shells; agriculture) and thus they set about investing in improving productivity in this area?

  7. Outstanding points Martijn, and I think a very correct extension of this idea into the modern workplace.

    Sam, the consensus is that the skills were simply lost, and that overall the Tasmanians were worse off as a result. There’s a pretty extensive write-up of this in The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley which is worth a read.

  8. Hi Sam:

    I think the Tasmanians allocated their resources to trying to get a team for the national Australian Rules football competition. They haven’t succeeded yet, but every new government still makes the promise. :)

    John (wearing my ex-Tasmanian hat)

  9. Loved this post.

    With regard to how this relates to the enterprise/business and innovation, it’s worth considering mercantilism. The Mercantilists thought they could go the Tasmanian route but failed to realise they were dependent on colonialism and piracy to survive.

    Going further, I’d say that any kind of isolation/purity will lead to a mercantilist mindset. Specialism can be isolationist – so organisations need to hire more dilettantes; the kind of people who get bored/disempowered and want to explore.

    A valley between ‘Twin Peaks’ can be as powerful a force for isolation as a sea:

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