Our Nobel colleague on Fractal Darwinism A new model for understanding innovation and creative thinking


Gerd Binnig

Industry leaders in Maryland, Virginia and DC have initiated an ambitious agenda to establish the region as a top three biotech hub by 2023, an effort that will require a high level of innovation at many levels. I was invited to the Maryland Regional Biotech Forum at MedImmune in late March to discuss my own insights into innovation, which I began to formulate after our somewhat unorthodox invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). I believe this creative model, which I have called “fractal Darwinism,” is applicable to a range of endeavors that require innovative and daring thinking.

Fractal geometry, as defined by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, is a form of “roughness” where patterns repeat and are self-similar across scales. A commonly cited example of this is a coastline, where the jaggedness that you see at your feet is repeated even as you view the coastline from the increasingly higher vantage points of a cliff or an airplane. These recursive patterns across scales can also be observed in evolutionary processes and applied to a creativity model. And when we think of Darwinism, we often place it in the context of the survival of the fittest. However, this concept also overlooks the key element of variation in Darwin’s theory; meaning, that the process of evolution encompasses unexpected turns and surprising outcomes, which are also key characteristics of creative insight. Other important elements - discovered later - are helpful as well to describe creative processes.

In fact, my development of the STM was itself an unexpected turn, as I had not set out to develop a microscope when I began my research, but rather had wanted to investigate how the properties of atoms change on the surface of a material when they are irregularly ordered. How then did I start with one goal in mind and end up with an atomic microscope? For me, this creative journey can best be described in the context of fractal Darwinism.

Creativity is a uniquely self-similar process in which patterns at different scales interact with each other, affecting other patterns at different scales and rippling throughout the system. This fractal structure can be seen as Darwinian when we consider the nature of scientific thought. Each new idea or development is embedded in the context of all existing ideas and developments and in return might have an impact on the bigger scale. At the outset, several of the notions may seem more likely to be useful, but during the evolution of ideas that occur during creative thinking, a seemingly "naïve" idea may become stronger, mutate, and outlast ideas that at first glance seemed more "realistic." If I had not been daring enough to allow this "naïve" idea to gestate, a bold new innovation may never have been developed and finally survived in the context that is evolving as well.

But just as a mutation in the natural world can be too fragile to survive a harsh environment, a new idea in the creative process may not always be strong enough to stand up to harsh assessments from other researchers. In this light, as much as collaboration is necessary for successful innovation, there is also a crucial place for isolation, allowing a new idea time to develop and grow stronger. The concept of isolation was introduced in Darwinian theory quite some time after Darwin.

To generalize this theory even further I added in addition to variation & selection, reproduction & death and isolation three further elements. First is the balance of the intensity of interaction through the terms of isolation & attraction. This also incorporates the mechanism of collaboration, which is today a well-known element for success. Second, these six high-level mechanisms are generic for all processes on all scales where new structures are created and the scales are coupled. Third, these six high-level mechanisms go by themselves also through such evolutionary processes to optimize their effectiveness in detail.

Of course, simply having a creative idea in your head is insufficient for the development of innovative products, companies or ecosystems. I was fortunate to have conducted my research at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory, which provided a unique "cultural melting pot with individuality" for developing the STM (attraction). The coupling of the scale "Zurich Lab" and big scale IBM was essential. Completing the final cycle of evolution, we allowed our invention to reproduce worldwide by permitting others to copy our technology (reproduction). In the end, "The openness was as important as the invention."

I am hopeful that these lessons in innovation will be useful to leaders across industry, academia, government and the investment community in the Maryland region as they collaborate in an even greater spirit of openness to create a vibrant and resilient healthcare ecosystem.