Innovating innovation: The role of social networks

Paolo Rossini (Erasmus School of Philosophy)

The exponential growth of social networks has opened new avenues for innovators. As the world has shrunk, diffusion of innovations has grown faster, while the number of collaborative inventions has steadily increased. But a networked world has also its challenges. The channels that allow a disease to spread are those that prevent its cure from being accepted. And, with the advent of social media, controversies over innovations have broadened and intensified, becoming more difficult to navigate.

Lessons can be learned from history here. We are not the first to live in a networked world. 17th century Europe was already highly connected, with a few brokers bridging politically and culturally disparate regions. In this context, discoveries were made at an unprecedented rate. Although some of these discoveries—from the Cartesian coordinate system to the Newtonian law of universal gravitation—bore the name of a single scientist, we now know that they were the result of a collective endeavor. Descartes capitalized on the interconnectedness of the world around him to break down the walls of his self-exile. Likewise, Newton could not have written his Principia had it not been for the network of informants who provided him with reports and observations.

Framing innovation—how it is created and accepted, but also obstructed and denied—is an unescapable task for social scientists, historians, philosophers, computer scientists, and economists alike. The aim of this workshop is to foster a discussion across all these disciplines.