The importance of recombinant innovation

By Jana Bringmann - 05 April 2022

As Entrepreneurs we inspire and get inspired every day, we create opportunities, and we continuously produce new ideas for products and services which we hope will have a positive impact on our communities and wider society.

However, it is the move beyond mere intellectual property and action taking,where true innovation can be found. It does not always have to be a ground-breaking “Eureka moment” when innovation takes place. Combining existing ideas from different areas can be just as valuable. “New ways of seeing old things” was the theme of Aberdeen’s TEDx Event in July 2021 and the focus of Chris Moule’s talk was The Importance of Recombinant Innovation.

As an independently organized initiative, TEDx aims at bringing TED’s general mission of sharing “ideas worth spreading” to local communities and spark inspiring conversations around the globe. TEDx Aberdeen was the first event in the region, with 10 speakers featured on the day, and it is anticipated further events will follow in 2022.  

As the Head of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Robert Gordon University, Chris shares valuable insights into how today’s leaders can establish the fertile ground to incorporate recombinant innovation into their own organizations. One impactful example of recombinant innovation is the wheeled suitcase, an innovation by Bernard Sadow back in 1970, created from two previously unrelated but well-established products—the wheel and the suitcase. 

Believing in the power of ideas and mentorship is especially valuable to the TEDx speakers. As Chris says, his mentors Moray Barber, Elisa Doucette, Bob Keiller, and Derrick Thomson—as well as the other speakers—played a key part in “providing the necessary guidance and support to embark on his personal TEDx journey—building my story and my confidence”. He goes on, “it was a privilege to speak at the first TEDx Aberdeen, and I wanted to ensure that my story was memorable and compelling”. 

Is the Digitalization limiting our ability to innovate?  

In today’s fast paced, data-driven world, most organizations are judged by their day-to-day activities and therefore adapt to a solely profit oriented short-term approach. This, however, directly contradicts with the explorative nature of innovation, where experimentation and failure become part of the culture, leading to shortcomings in many establishments.  

Moreover, our exposure to new ideas and contexts nowadays is limited by numerous factors such as departmentalization in organizations—with teams working in silos or even travel restrictions due to current global socio-political issues. In an environment where algorithms dictate what we watch, read, or listen to it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of our own filter bubbles and broaden our peripheral vision. A state in which we are unable to see new and diverse opportunities and our need to try new things is lost, that leaves little room for a growth mindset. While technology offers huge convenience by saving time and energy, it now takes an active step to break out of our comfort zones.

As Chris says: “We need to develop a growth mindset and purposefully seek opportunities to learn something new. Everyone has the potential to do so.” 

How can we establish the framework for recombinant innovation? 

In order to inspire his audience, Chris takes them on a personal journey, using story telling as a tool to establish emotional connectivity. To do so he went back to his childhood holidays, spoke about academia and the music industry before setting out a three-step plan for leaders to create the environment for stimulating and fostering recombinant innovation.  

  • Connect people throughout organizations, embrace differences, and learn from varying settings. As a personal recommendation, Chris suggests the book Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed, for anyone who wants to learn about the power of cognitive diversity. 
  • Appreciate the value of cultural diversity and the different lenses it offers through which one can see their surroundings. A collective brain, powered by collective intelligence, will be able to see a comprehensive picture and can not only challenge, but solve existing issues of our society. Today’s leaders need to address both the exploration side of innovation and its uncertainty and provide employees with opportunities to try new things, as well as the exploitation side.  
  • Create time and space for recombinant innovation. Following Bill Hewlett’s approach to management, which he coined The HP Way, designing opportunities for people to connect during breaks and water-cooler moments. Strategies that create a safe space for people to learn and fail and go again will go a long way in creating a successful business that can survive in the long run. Here, Chris argues that it can be valuable to start several projects, place a number of small bets, but to be conscious of the fact that many of them will fail. However, by making mistakes one gains the ability to ask illuminating and insightful questions—that can create better solutions. Chris says that it is like Lego blocks—building again and again and recombining ideas repeatedly until it works. 

In the future, entrepreneurship will continue to become increasingly important and serve as a strong competitive advantage, liberating people and workplaces around the globe. As the digital transformation progresses, traditional jobs and demands will evolve, giving rise to new work patterns, new jobs, and careers. Educational institutions will need to continually evolve to meet the needs of the students and the needs of society and position themselves to provide communities of students, staff, and graduates who have innovative mindsets, emotional intelligence, resilience, and entrepreneurial leadership skills.  

You can re-watch the TEDx talk to gain more insights on recombinant innovation.

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