Learning from US patent trends – innovation and synthesis in Aotearoa

By - Wayne Linklater 23/11/2012

Innovating is hard and getting harder. You and I, apparently unlike any one before us, are ‘burdened by knowledge’. It is becoming more difficult to be novel – at least alone and early in life.

The burden of knowledge –
Intellectually deeper, conceptually wider

First-time innovators are older, required to be more specialised, and therefore, more likely to lodge a patent as a team. Benjamin Jones at Northwestern University IL, USA (now Kellogg School of Management) analysed 2.9 million patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office to reveal these trends and, what he described as, the ‘death of the renaissance man1.

Jones suggests the trends are a consequence of our facing a greater educational burden that delays innovation and drives specialisation to impair the capacity of individuals to innovate. Knowledge today is intellectually deeper and conceptually wider. Tomorrow it will be deeper and wider still.

Importantly, the ‘burden of knowledge’ may explain why an economy – a measure of communities solving problems and achieving aspirations – does not grow as fast as research effort expands. We can compensate by learning and living for longer, but most importantly, collaborating more, especially as inter-disciplinary teams towards synthesis.

Even when the returns to society are great, however, it can be difficult to generate synthesis because studies show that it requires the face-to-face collaboration of people from different disciplines, often competing institutions, not used to talking with each

The burden of knowledge
The burden of knowledge – an enormous network of information and participants

other. They have different priorities and languages – often using different words for the same things3. Nevertheless, individuals who participate in synthesis are more productive, increasingly collaborative, and more visible to peers and leaders in ways that positively influence careers3 – surely a strong motivator amongst NZ’s innovators in universities and research institutes.

New Zealand needs a Centre for Synthesis. Other countries have prioritised centres of ecological synthesis – perhaps because ecological science is at the heart of our most wicked problems – like NZ’s deteriorating rivers. Australia has one (ACEAS). The US has one (NCEAS). They drive innovation and problem solving in those countries – but we can do better.

A Centre for Synthesis Aotearoa – gold at the end of the rainbow

Recent changes in government science policy and funding mean the time is right for a nationally coordinated effort to establish a Centre for Synthesis. But ours should not be restricted to the sciences. We could make major advances in how knowledge and research contributes to New Zealand and the quality of lives of Kiwis if we could put all the human endeavours in one room towards solutions to our most important problems or highest aspirations as a country. As an ecologist, I’d welcome a conversation about these things with businesses, investors, lawyers, economists, psychologists, geographers, physicists, chemists, philosophers, historians…

A Centre for Synthesis should bring together researchers, investors, and those who can implement – businesses and government. New Zealand business agrees. Ruth Richardson, chair of KiwiNet, recently advocated (NBR 26th Oct. 2012) bringing research institutions, investors and businesses together in ‘market-facing’ Advanced Technology Institutes. The National government’s ‘Science Challenge’ could be a vehicle for such synthesis.

Its important, but also sounds like fun. The time is right.


1          Jones, B. F. The Burden of Knowledge and the “Death of the Renaissance Man”: Is Innovation Getting Harder? Review of Economic Studies 76, 283-317 (2009).

2          Carpenter, S. R. et al. Accelerate Synthesis in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. Bioscience 59, 699-701 (2009).

3          Hampton, S. E. & Parker, J. N. Collaboration and Productivity in Scientific Synthesis. Bioscience 61, 900-910(2011).

4          Rittel, H. & Webber, M. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-169 (1973).

5          Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. & Auld, G. Playing it forward: path dependency, progressive incrementalism, and the “Super Wicked” problem of global climate change. IOP conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 6, 502002 (2009).


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