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Which Favors Innovation: Cooperation or Competition?

November 3, 2011 4 comments

When I talk to folks about the upcoming Innovation Forum, I sometimes get quizzical looks. How can one possibly say anything useful about something as broad and general as “innovation” or “creativity”? It is a fair question, because we academics value precision and specificity over vagueness and generalities. We like to think that we reason inductively, from the specific to the general, rather than the other way around. That keeps us grounded in the evidence, and prevents us from drifting off course into vaporous deductive theories that have no basis in reality.

On the other hand, that’s not always how we learn, and it’s definitely not always how human knowledge advances. What really happens is rather a messy combination of the inductive and deductive, known as intuition, gut feeling—whatever you want to call it—that lights a fire under our curiosity and sends us off in search of evidence to back up our original intuition.  Sometimes we don’t find the evidence, which means that our gut feeling was wrong. We pick up our bruised ego, dust if off, and set off again. But every once in a while, we do find the evidence, and discover something entirely new.

So I’ve always had this, well, let’s call it intuition for the moment, that our modern emphasis on competition as the driving force of human progress is only a half truth. Yes, Adam Smith was on to something when he argued that the competition of rational, self-interested individuals in the marketplace fosters the most productive economy. And Darwin was right to see competition as the driving force of natural selection. Indeed, the whole enterprise of the Enlightenment was based on the assumption that all human progress is a function of rational individuals maximizing their self-interest in competition with each other. So far so good.

The problem is context. Competition certainly works in the short term, and it certainly works among individuals. Over the long term, however, and among groups, competition alone does not work. It has to be balanced by cooperation. That’s where innovation comes in. Take the ever-fascinating problem of the prisoner’s dilemma (which I won’t describe here, in the interests of saving space). In the short term, “defectors,” or cheaters, beat cooperators as individuals. But if “cooperators” form clusters or groups, they thrive, and cheaters do not.

A new book entitled SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, by the Harvard mathematical biologist Martin A. Nowak (with Roger Highfield) makes just this case, and argues not only that cooperation is central to innovation, but that it is central to the entire process of evolution itself: “cooperation, not competition, has always been the key to the evolution of complexity.” In other words, cooperation is not just a conscious strategy we might adopt to get something we want, it is actually behind the evolution of all forms of life on earth from the origin of life to the present: “Cooperation—not competition—underpins innovation. To spur creativity, and to encourage people to come up with original ideas, you need to use the lure of the carrot, not fear of the stick. Cooperation is the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities. Without cooperation there can be neither construction nor complexity in evolution” (xvii).

What does this all mean for our grand experiment in education on the Bothell campus? I suppose it could mean a lot of things, but what jumps out for me is a mysterious and wonderful paradox. Cooperation requires rules; innovation requires breaking those rules. Without innovation, cooperation produces stagnation, but with too much innovation, cooperation unravels and produces chaos. As our campus becomes more complex, we invent more bureaucracy to facilitate more effective cooperation. It is inevitable and right that we do so. But if we want to thrive in the future, we need to carve out a protected space wherein we can break the rules, take risks, explore the unknown, follow our intuition, and tolerate failure.

The European Renaissance is often touted as a remarkable example of innovation—in the arts, literature, and technology (back in the days when art and technology were not seen as adversaries but complementary partners in creativity)—and indeed it was. It broke all the rules. At the same time, it was also a period of extensive intellectual cooperation (and yes, competition) that grew out of a revival of the very old—the classical models of Greek and Roman civilization. To break the rules, in other words, it had to know what those rules were. So if we want to build a reputation for innovation, we need to create an institutional space for that tension to coexist, because it may be that very tension that feeds new ways of thinking.