The English scientist Sir Isaac Newton, was famously quoted as saying, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” — referring to the contributions of those who came before him.

Combinatorial creativity insists that nothing is entirely original; everything builds on what came before. “We create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations,” says Maria Popova.

For Popova, it’s the idea that in order to create something worthy, we have to look at the dots left behind by other people. And then we try to connect them, but also combine them, cross-pollinate them, spin them around several times and look at those dots from every angle, and then use these elements to piece something new.

Most people see creativity as an unpredictable amorphous abstract blob that comes and goes; it cannot be scheduled or structured, and it has no form or reason. But the truth is entirely the opposite: creativity isn’t erratic. In fact, science has been researching how to properly build, nurture, and harness creativity for decades, and to much success.

In her article, Creativity as a Neuroscientific Mystery, researcher Margaret Boden described several types of creative idea generation. In particular, she laid out steps to generate ideas through combinatorial creativity: (1) collect as many ideas as possible, (2) let them sit and incubate, (3) set up a trigger event that pushes you to think about, and finally, (4) engage in a relaxing activity that will allow connections and combinations to happen — such as taking a bath. This perhaps also explains why sometimes we develop good ideas while in the bathroom doing something totally unrelated.

Nothing is original — and that’s okay.

When we bring up that creativity involves taking existing ideas, concepts, or elements and recombining them in novel ways to produce something unique, then we also admit that nothing is truly original — at least not in the sense that it’s built from zero. And for creatives who are so in love with their craft, there may be some resistance to this statement. But it’s more than just taking something someone else made and making it yours.

Research gives us three driven approaches to combinational creativity to develop original creative products: problems, common representations, and inspirations. In an article focusing on creativity in product design — an industry that requires constant creation and evolution — researchers saw these three as the perfect approach to harnessing the benefits of combinatorial creativity.

In the problem-driven approach, creativity is driven by a problem. A target idea is then achieved by combining a primary idea and a problem-solving idea. In their example, the target is, for example, to create an all-day parasol. The problem-solving idea one could come to, meanwhile, is a torch. The result then is a combination of a parasol and a garden torch. Simple when you think about it, but unique in its design.

In the common-driven approach, meanwhile, they achieve combinational creativity by combining a basic idea and another idea that has common or similar representations. Take a spoon and a fork, for example. Individually, their common representation is that they’re both cutlery. This makes the possibility of combining them feasible. So the result we could arrive at is a spork.

And lastly the inspiration-driven approach says that combinational creativity is driven by an inspiration or a source of inspiration. They then combine a basic idea and this inspirational idea to create the product. In their case, the result is a lemon squeezer inspired by the shape of a squid.

In all these approaches, we can see that the creator, in this case a designer, didn’t begin from scratch. Depending on the approach, he or she took ideas, characteristics, and inspiration from other works produced by other creators and used that as a springboard to produce something equally unique and equally creative. And someday, perhaps their work will be used by another creator to produce more inspiring work, and so on. Such is the wonder of combinatorial creativity.

The growth of combinatorial creativity thanks to the internet

With the rise of the internet, accessing vast amounts of information and resources to generate new ideas has become even easier. Search engines, social media networks, and now, AI, have created a global network of knowledge and information that individuals can easily draw from to practice combinatorial creativity to its fullest.

For content creators, academics, and even aspiring startup founders, it’s become easier for them to find others’ ideas and combine different perspectives and disciplines to generate new and innovative solutions.

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson says that “the great driver of scientific and technological innovation [in the last 600 years has been] the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people.” The internet and its platforms make this power even greater.

A caveat, though: we now have more content to consume, but we are processing it poorly, which means it’s harder for us to make new connections that lead to creativity. We’re so used to multi-tasking that we’re losing the ability to think deeply about one topic at a time. Of course, we’ll be remiss if we also don’t mention that not every idea online is worthy of attention.

In order to make full use of this knowledge database, we must look for the right sources, produced by the experts, and curated by those who share the same passion for promoting and fostering these ideals as much as we do.

Using knowledge graphs to guide us to others and their ideas

Social networks and their social graphs, in particular, have revolutionized the way we access information and connect with others. These platforms allow us to browse through a vast collection of images, videos, and articles, making it easier to discover new ideas and concepts that we might not have encountered otherwise. We even have the ability to save, organize, and share these pieces of content with others for future creative use.

At t2, instead of building a normal social graph — connections between individuals on a network — we are forming a collective knowledge graph composed of people and their accumulated knowledge in the form of their attention. Because the ultimate scarcity on the network is attention, content functions as the catalyst to curate it.

Harvard’s Clay Christensen says: “Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.”

Through content, t2 witnesses the architecture of this information transit by linking items with the attention spent by users. In the process, we reveal the relational value with a transparent matric that is traceable and measurable, which forms the collective knowledge graph of human intellect.

Nothing is entirely original, creativity is combinational, and culture is a remix.


Written by Peter Imbong, content creator at t2.