Great Innovators Think Laterally

Great Innovators Think Laterally

by Ian Gonsher and Deb Mills-Scofield  |  10:00 AM April 23, 2013

Do you ever wonder why cars aren’t called “horseless carriages” anymore? Today’s cars are just as horseless as they were a century ago. Horselessness is standard equipment on most new and late models, both foreign and domestic.

Framing the question this way may seem a bit absurd; yet, it’s a playful reminder that innovation does not emerge out of nothing. New innovations evolve from historical, iterative processes. The automobile developed out of, and in opposition to, concepts associated with the horse and carriage. This was the familiar frame of reference when the automobile first emerged. Early automobiles extended and adapted the accustomed 19th century understanding of locomotion.

However, long after the automobile had made the horse and carriage obsolete and the association had faded, the concepts of each still defined one another; this synthesis is still present today. Traces of the horse and carriage are found in terms like “horsepower” and in the names of classic cars like the Mustang, Colt, and Bronco. Consider the form of a car’s design. You can see how four legs evolved into four wheels and headlights into the eyes of our metal beasts of burden. The vestiges of formative features still affect how we make sense of the built environment and our material culture, even if the original antecedent has long been forgotten.

Often, when searching for a new way to understand a familiar idea, we look for its opposite. By doing this, we create a spectrum of possibilities between what it is and what it is not. This strategy is somewhat similar to what is often referred to as the Hegelian Dialectic, although Hegel himself probably never used this term, or its familiar formula: Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis:

  • Thesis is a proposition about a prevalent paradigm; e.g. a horse and carriage;
  • Antithesis is a counter proposition that opposes or negates the Thesis; e.g. the first generation of automobiles called “horseless carriages”;
  • Synthesis emerges from the tension between the Thesis and the Antithesis, blending the opposing ideas without fully negating either of them completely; e.g. our modern understanding of the car.

A creative, innovative mind also seeks to move beyond the given categories of thought established by binary either/or frameworks (such as the Hegelian model just described). This is still a move towards synthesis, but it includes opposing concepts that are internal to that binary framework and to ideas outside of it. If you’re a visual thinker, you can think of the internal concepts as a “vertical” axis and the external concepts as a “horizontal” axis. Lateral thinking, the ability to move horizontally across different categories of thought, often manifests itself as a synthesis between seemingly incongruent ideas; think of Roger Martin’s classic, Opposable Minds.

Let’s extend the horselessness example to imagine how horizontal moves across categories can play out. Beyond the familiar four-wheeled vehicle, which may have evolved in response to animal anatomy, we can imagine other categories of vehicles. We might imagine a vehicle with three wheels or five wheels or no wheels at all. But why stop there? We can imagine even more divergent, lateral moves across other categories as we consider vehicles that fly or hover. Once upon a time legs became wheels, which eventually took on a variety of divergent configurations, so why can’t wheels become something else entirely?

Consider the astonishing fact that within about 60 years we went from Kitty Hawk to Apollo 11, from flying just a few feet above the earth’s surface to traveling the 234,000 miles to the moon. Flying vehicles went from wings to wingless, from within the earth’s atmosphere to outside of it in a single lifetime. This is just one example of how lateral thinking and quick iteration can produce astonishing results in a relatively short amount of time. Students at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design had the opportunity to explore this principle at the 2012 Better World By Design Conference, where they iteratively designed, constructed, and tested paper airplanes. They extended familiar categories of the paper airplane to include designs inspired by frisbees, helicopters, and birds. Within about an hour, participants had completely reimagined the paper airplane, exploring categories that went well beyond their initial conceptions about what a paper airplane was and could be.

The creative process is just that: a process. Recognizing value that others have missed doesn’t require preternatural clairvoyance. A well-honed creative process enables us to intuitively recognize patterns and use those insights to make inductive predictions about divergent ideas, both vertically within categories, and horizontally across categories. By understanding the genealogy of innovation within a given category, we can imagine what might come next.

We need to break out of thinking that is solely based on what we know, what we assume, and what we’ve experienced. Many of us are so entrenched in our industries that we don’t know how to think laterally or horizontally. We usually go a mile deep but only an inch wide. We haven’t given our people and ourselves the time and opportunities to explore other industries, cultures designs, ways of being and doing, and other “adjacent possibilities.”

If you want to take your “car” far beyond horses, even to the moon perhaps, you and your team need to understand the genealogy of innovation, of how you got to where you are, and look outside of that familiar world to see where you can go.

Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to be Every 12 Hours

Industry Tap article:

Knowledge Doubling Curve

Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today things are not as simple as different types of knowledge have different rates of growth. For example, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.  According to IBM, the build out of  the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.

Human Brain Indexing Will Consume Several Billion Petabytes

In a recent lecture at Harvard University neuroscientist Jeff Lichtman, who is attempting to map the human brain, has calculated that several billion petabytes of data storage would be needed to index the entire human brain. The Internet is currently estimated to be 5 million terabytes (TB) of which Google has indexed roughly 200 TB or just .004% of its total size. The numbers involved are astounding especially when considering the size of the human brain and the number of neurons in it.

Brainbow Cerebellum

Each individual neuron is itself a computer …

New Scientist Life, Apr. 26, 2010

The brain’s power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons, suggests University of Cambridge research biologist Brian J. Ford.

“Each individual neuron is itself a computer, and the brain a vast community of microscopic computers… the human brain may be a trillion times more capable than we imagine,” he adds.

–Click to read the original article …

Give us this day our dailymooc!

In 2013, everyone is talking about MOOCs. School of Thinking is 100% online and has been offering and teaching its early version of dailymoocs–training hundreds of thousands of students, in over 50 countries at a time, pro bono publico and every day–since its online establishment in 1995.

Our SOT dailymooc classes were massive. They were open access. They were online. They were free. Our training motto was We teach thinking as a skill. Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.


— Click to the original article here …

Explainer: the brain

By Kate Hoy, , Monash University

If I had been asked 15 years ago to write a short piece about what the different parts of the brain did, it would have been a fairly straightforward task. Not any more.

Over the last 15 years, the methods used to study the brain have advanced significantly, and with this so has our understanding. Which makes the task of explaining the most complex organ in the body, well, complex.

Back to basics

The structural anatomy of the brain is certainly well defined and the more basic of our functions have been generally well mapped. The “lower levels,” such as the brainstem, regulate functions such as heart rate, breathing, and maintaining consciousness.

And the cerebellum is critical for the control and regulation of movement. While it was thought that this was its sole function, more recently the cerebellum has also been shown to have a role in so-called “higher functions” such as cognition and emotion.


The structural anatomy of the brain is fairly well-defined. Brain image from


As we move to the “higher levels” of the brain, namely the cerebral cortex, where more complex functions come into play, the assignment of function to structure becomes decidedly less distinct.

Different hemispheres

The cortex is structurally divided into two hemispheres (left and right) each with four lobes (occipital, parietal, temporal and frontal).

Brain functions, such as visual perception, language, memory, spatial ability and problem solving, have been traditionally allocated to one such lobe and/or hemisphere of the brain.


Colour-coded lobes of the brain. Brain diagram from


This has led to a number of misnomers regarding brain function, the most popular of which is the commonly held belief that there is a distinction between the left “logical” brain and the right “creative” brain. As discussed below, such complex behaviours are not determined by a specific brain region, or even a specific hemisphere.

The conceptualisation of an almost one-to-one relationship between structure and function was largely a result of lesion studies, where damage to a specific part of the brain resulted in impairments in a particular function. But as our techniques of assessing the brain became more sophisticated this approach was shown to be somewhat simplistic.

We have come a long way from the phrenology of Franz Gall in the 19th century, in which characteristics such as secretiveness, self-esteem and wonder were determined by the shape of the skull (thought to be a proxy of brain size), and the 20th century reliance on lesion studies to determine the function of the different areas of the brain.

Connected network

We are now developing an understanding that complex, higher-level brain functions are a result of a number of brain areas working together, in what are termed “networks”.

This has been a result of techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which allows us to look at the entirety of brain regions involved in certain functions, with newer applications allowing the visualisation of connections between these brain regions (i.e. Diffusion Tensor Imaging).

This is not to say that there is no separation of function throughout the brain. Rather, while there are brain regions that carry out specialised functions, they are now thought to do so in concert with other brain regions via network connections.

To conceptualise this, you could think of the brain as a exceptionally efficient rail network where certain train stations perform specialised duties but they do so in conjunction with other stations, and they are connected and “communicate” via the rail network.

Language can provide a good example of how this occurs in the brain. Language is often thought of as a solely “left brain” function and, while there is a degree of lateralisation, this is certainly not the whole story.

There are specific regions in the dominant (usually left) hemisphere that are integral in the production and comprehension of speech, i.e. Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area respectively.


NIH publication 97-4257/Wikimedia Commons


But the non-dominant (usually right) hemisphere is also involved in language, and is thought to be important in the recognition and production of the emotional context of speech.

Additionally, the “language network” involves a number of other dominant “left” hemisphere regions, including prefrontal cortex, premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, as well as regions of the parietal and temporal lobes.

These brain regions work together to perform higher order aspects of language such as the application of the correct syntax to speech, as well as the mapping of words to their meaning.

While there are certain highly-specialised brain regions for language, they are still part of an extensive network of brain regions which work together to produce this complex function.

In addition, the brain is not fixed in its functioning. It is plastic and, if needed due to illness or injury, it can recruit new regions and/or networks to take over the functions of the damaged areas.

And so we believe it is a complex interaction between structure and function that best describes what the different part of the brain do — at least for now …

– Kate Hoy receives funding from the NHMRC and Beyond Blue.

The Conversation

— This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article. See more Explainer articles on The Conversation.

April is Metacognition Month

Metacognition is the highest state of thinking. It’s actually thinking about thinking. Being aware of one’s thinking and directing one’s thinking in a deliberate and strategic way. Wisdom, wherever it can be found, is also metacognition.

Starting on the first of April 2013, School of Thinking began celebrating Metacognition Month.

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