For Impact


Social Innovation by Analogy

Story | | Nick Fellers

Building on yesterday’s post about analogy, it occurs to me there are two types of analogy: Recycled Analogy and Innovative Analogy.

It’s often said that innovation is nothing more than putting together existing concepts in a new way.

Here are some more nuggets from the book Shortcut to illustrate innovation and Innovative Analogy:

Steve Jobs once told Wired magazine that “when you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

And, here is a story about how Steve Jobs came up with the (innovative) analogy of the computer as a ‘bicycle for the mind’.

In a talk that showed the same grand vision but little of the polish that the world would later come to expect of him, Jobs stood behind a lectern and told of “the best analogy I’ve ever heard.” He cited a study reported in Scientific American that calculated the locomotive efficiency of various animals—from fish to mammals to birds—to determine which could travel from A to B with the least expenditure of energy.

The condor won. The condor took the least amount of energy to get from here to there,” Jobs told the audience. “And man didn’t do so well; he came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. But fortunately, someone at Scientific American was insightful enough to test man with a bicycle. And man with a bicycle won—twice as good as the condor. All the way off the list. And what it showed was that man as a toolmaker has the ability to make a tool to amplify an inherent ability that he has. And that’s exactly what we are doing here [at Apple]. It’s exactly what we’re doing here.”

As Jobs described it, Apple was building a “bicycle for the mind”—a tool that could take people’s minds anywhere they could possibly imagine and multiply its power.

Recycled analogies are useful. They provide mental shortcuts and need little explanation. Examples:

  • We’re going to be the Uber of ____
  • This is going to be the Mecca of ___
  • Innovative Analogies are original (imported) concepts. Steve Jobs applied a concept from study in Scientific America! Innovative Analogies might take a little explaining, but they create a new (visionary) frame for the audience.

    I’m starting to think about Innovative Analogy and how it has played out in the social sector. I’m cataloging examples to share in a later post (at which point they will be ‘recycled’). If you have any example, email me.