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Idea engines: Unifying innovation & obsolescence from markets & genetic evolution to science

Innovation and obsolescence describe dynamics of ever-churning and adapting social and biological systems, concepts that encompass field-specific formulations. We formalize the connection with a reduced model of the dynamics of the “space of the possible” (e.g., technologies, mutations, theories) to which agents (e.g., firms, organisms, scientists) couple as they grow, die, and replicate. We predict three regimes: The space is finite, ever growing, or a Schumpeterian dystopia in which obsolescence drives the system to collapse. We reveal a critical boundary at which the space of the possible fluctuates dramatically in size, displaying recurrent periods of minimal and of veritable diversity. When the space is finite, corresponding to physically realizable systems, we find surprising structure. This structure predicts a taxonomy for the density of agents near and away from the innovative frontier that we compare with distributions of firm productivity, COVID diversity, and citation rates for scientific publications. Our minimal model derived from first principles aligns with empirical examples, implying a follow-the-leader dynamic in firm cost efficiency and biological evolution, whereas scientific progress reflects consensus that waits on old ideas to go obsolete. Our theory introduces a fresh and empirically testable framework for unifying innovation and obsolescence across fields.

E.D. Lee, C.P. Kempes, G.B. West, Idea engines: Unifying innovation & obsolescence from markets & genetic evolution to science, PNAS 121(6) (2024) e2312468120.


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