When was the last time you heard or read about a revolutionary technology or idea?

Here is a random assortment:

The Printing Press
The Hybrid Electric Engine
The iPad

It would be hard to argue that any of these technologies are not revolutionary – and each have certainly changed the world in some way. However, when you think about it – how much innovation really went into each one of these inventions?

The Printing Press: Invented in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg, this device essentially mixes together two existing technologies: movable type (created by the Chinese as early as 1040) and the wine press (originally conceived to crush grapes for wine).

The Hybrid Electric Engine: This innovation is basically a well-balanced combination of a gas/electric generator and a trunk-full of cell phone batteries.

Facebook: Social communication over the internet is nearly as old as the internet itself. One of the earliest social outlets was AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), which launched in 1996. Facebook is essentially a more sophisticated version of AIM where users have control of an entire webpage (their profile) and can interact with their friends in ways other than just instant messaging.

The iPad: Perhaps the least impressive invention on the list – this device is simply a larger version of the iPod Touch.

When thinking about these inventions in comparison to the technologies that laid the groundwork for their discovery – they seem quite ordinary. They’re all minor modifications of existing technologies or combinations of inventions that already exist.

If you were to look at the body of existing technology as a building – each invention is simply one additional brick laid on top of all of the technologies that supported its discovery. A different analogy is that of an endlessly sprawling mansion, where each additional room in the mansion (a new discovery) can only be accessed when its adjacent rooms have already been explored.

The secret to changing the world is not thinking big – but rather it’s examining everything that already exists and thinking of small ways to modify, improve, or combine. Big discoveries lay here, in the adjacent possible.

Citation – the concept of the Adjacent Possible is credited to Steven Johnson and his book Where Good Ideas Come From.

The Adjacent Possible