Invention as a Combinatorial Process: Evidence from U.S. Patents

16 June 2014

Hyejin Youn , Luis M. A. Bettencourt, Deborah Strumsky and Jose Lobo

Cornell University Library arXiv:1406.2938

View Journal Article / Working Paper

Invention has been commonly conceptualised as a search over a space of combinatorial possibilities. Despite the existence of a rich literature, spanning a variety of disciplines, elaborating on the recombinant nature of invention, we lack a formal and quantitative characterization of the combinatorial process underpinning inventive activity. Here we utilise U.S. patent records dating from 1790 to 2010 to formally characterise the invention as a combinatorial process. To do this we treat patented inventions as carriers of technologies and avail ourselves of the elaborate system of technology codes used by the U.S. Patent Office to classify the technologies responsible for an invention's novelty. We find that the combinatorial inventive process exhibits an invariant rate of "exploitation" (refinements of existing combinations of technologies) and "exploration" (the development of new technological combinations). This combinatorial dynamic contrasts sharply with the creation of new technological capabilities -- the building blocks to be combined -- which has significantly slowed down. We also find that notwithstanding the very reduced rate at which new technologies are introduced, the generation of novel technological combinations engenders a practically infinite space of technological configurations.