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How new things come about

The source of innovation is “epistemic” recycling. This is a term from psychology and denotes the kind of curiosity that is directed at delivering more information to the organism and enabling it to acquire new knowledge.

You can learn a lot about innovation processes from studying the example of the history of the algorithm and software – from their earliest beginnings to the computer pioneer Alan Turing and his successors. “In today’s knowledge society, being open to new experiences is becoming more and more important – and the principle of epistemic curiosity is on the way to becoming a core competence,” asserts Dr Manuel Bachmann, a researcher at the University of Basel and lecturer at the University of Lucerne, in his book “The triumph of the algorithm – how the concept of software was invented.” The source of innovation is “epistemic” recycling.

This is a term from psychology and denotes the kind of curiosity that is directed at delivering more information to the organism and enabling it to acquire new knowledge. This “thirst for knowledge” encompasses behaviours such as being greedy to discover the unknown and learn new things and taking pleasure in solving problems.

These are core competencies which are nowadays also required to accomplish digital transformation. And it’s called “recycling” because new things normally feed on existing sources and are further developments of them. “If two versions follow on from one another and differ greatly, we rate the successor more highly than its predecessor and call it an innovation,” writes Bachmann.

Not all curiosity is the same

“Epistemic curiosity” differs significantly from a craving for sensation, thrill-seeking, nosiness, social curiosity about your neighbours or spying on your colleagues. Rather, the term sums up a very specific kind of human behaviour: it refers above all to the systematic seeking out of information and the acquisition of knowledge and problem-solving skills.

Scientists believe that the “spark of curiosity” first revealed itself 2.5 million years ago in three questions which still stand behind every innovation today: What? How? Why? These questions were the driving force behind the discovery of fire, the ability to cooperate and the imitation of nature.

So curiosity is in our blood as humans. However, it is by no means a matter of course, and it needs to be awakened. For example, information science appears at first sight to be complicated and a bit dull. But if you take the trouble to find your own way in to this complex subject, you may find yourself getting interested – and then it may even be fun to study it more closely.

How to awaken curiosity

Curiosity has definite social and economic benefits,” declares the Future Institute in Frankfurt am Main in its study “Curiosity management – fuel for innovation”.

But companies wishing to make use of this potential for their own benefit should bear three things in mind:

  • Autonomy: People become more curious when they have more opportunities to make choices, and when they are given more information and encouragement. So if managers want to stimulate curiosity in their company, they must give their employees more freedom.
  • Expertise: A curious company is also always one that learns. But if people are to expand their expertise, the learning has to be perfectly attuned to their level of knowledge. Material and tasks which are too difficult will just lead to feelings of irritation. They may be new, but they are not comprehensible enough to arouse curiosity.
  • Involvement: The feeling of being involved – of being connected to other people and believing that your emotional experiences are understood – also increases curiosity. Nothing motivates people more than the feeling that they are doing something useful. That is why companies must pay much more attention to the question of meaningfulness in future.

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    In order to compete with the German encryption machine “Enigma”, just a few weeks after arriving at Bletchley Park Turing ordered a machine to be constructed – the hardware.
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