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Burden of Knowledge Demands New Kind of Innovator

Andreas Cellarius, illustration of the Copernican system, from the "Harmonia Macrocosmica" (1660).
Wikimedia Commons

The more we know, the harder it is to be groundbreaking. The burden of knowledge is changing the way we work, and who drives innovation.

Close your eyes and think about the word "innovator." Who comes to mind? A twenty-something Silicon Valley prodigy? A brilliant high-schooler presenting her work at the White House Science Fair?

While those people undoubtedly exist, economist Ben Jones, Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship and Faculty Director of the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative at Northwestern University, says the popular image of innovators isn't necessarily accurate. Jones' research has shown that baby boomers are actually important drivers of innovation in the technology industry.

To understand why, let's step back a few hundred years. In 1543, when Copernicus put forward the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa, it was earth shattering. Decades later, the idea was still so controversial that Galileo's observations to the same effect earned him a run-in with the Inquisition. Today, though, it's considered a simple fact; we learn it in elementary school and it's used as a benchmark of science literacy.

While there is still plenty to learn about the world, we've learned a lot over the past five hundred or so years. That means mastering even the basics of our collective knowledge takes a lot more time and schooling than it used to. Getting to the cutting edge of any one field means years more education, plus specialization. Achieving the combined breadth and depth of knowledge we associate with Renaissance thinkers is nearly impossible today.

Jones calls this the burden of knowledge. It may seem a rather negative term for what is, in essence, an embarrassment of riches. But when there's more to know than any one brain can reasonably hold (or any one person can spend the time to learn), it can become an obstacle. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this burden. For example, collaboration.

As anyone who has opened a scientific journal in recent years can attest (and research corroborates), the size of experimental teams has grown tremendously in the past few decades. Bringing together groups of people, each with advanced understanding in one particular area, spreads the weight of the knowledge-burden.

It also necessitates a new kind of team player - a generalist with enough knowledge to talk to the specialists and enough perspective to see the big picture. Maturity, experience, and creativity are also important attributes for this twenty-first century innovator. Jones says its a perfect description for some of the most successful (middle-aged) tech sector CEOs, like Steve Jobs.

So, take heart. Just because you've passed your twenty-fifth birthday doesn't mean you're over the innovation hill. Good to know, right?