Innovation cartography: Mapping and navigating the IP landscape

The Unknown

“As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.”

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing, Donald Rumsfeld
These now immortal words of the neo-bard Donald Rumsfeld, though often lampooned, actually provide a helpful insight into the nature of innovation and landscapes on which it occurs.
Innovation, like navigating the high seas, is as much a matter of not steering a wrong course as it is steering the right one.   This is particularly so for those whose resources are limited, and where the risk of failure courts disaster.
In innovation thinking – itself almost an oxymoron – talking about how to make right choices and fostering sparks of creativity seems the dominant discourse.
But the realities of innovation are that most of the innovation process is grueling hard work, and the hard yakka is in avoiding stuff ups: endeavouring mightily not to ‘run aground, or crash into continents’.

So what are these continents, the reefs, the shoals and the currents that could take our ship of creative product and service delivery down to Davy Jones?

In those sectors driven by science-and technology-enabled innovation (SEI),  much of the uncertainty, the obscurity, the buried bommies are in the world of intellectual property, and most of this in the patent literature.

Curiously however – much of the excitement and opportunity of future and futuristic problem solving also lies in this same byzantine, obscure, clergy-ridden literature.

So what is it and how do we navigate it?

Patents are teachings.

They are – according to the letter of the law – fully open documents that exist to enable innovation.   Their very purpose – historically – is to disclose to the entire world exactly how to create a particular new, non-obvious and useful invention.

And in exchange for a full disclosure of how to make this invention, if the invention is described accurately and the patent office agrees that is meets its standards, the owner of the patent acquires a right to exclude others from precisely this invention for a limited time, and in a particular jurisdiction.  The standards of these patent granting agencies however can exist on the continuum from mediocre to execrable and from incomprehensible to inconsistent.   Making the whole enterprise extremely contentious, litigious, expensive and fraught.

So there’s good and bad.  The good is that the patent (and the aggregated millions of such patents) are indeed recipes for enterprise.  The bad is that there’s a dog in the manger.   Each patent grant gives the owner only a right to stop others from actually practicing the patent and does not accord the owner any right to practice her own invention!  This counter-intuitive observation is key to understanding the system and moving forward.

Patents are not innovations, they are inventions.  Modern innovations that hinge on science- and technology, for instance new communications technologies, materials, new energy technologies, new medical devices or vaccines, or new crops, typically don’t hinge on one invention and one technology. They require hundreds of pieces of science and technology to assemble the real innovation – the impact on the marketplace.   And yet each piece of the puzzle, each feature of the landscape, can be represented by a single (or even multiple) patents in many jurisdictions.

There is a metaphor worth exploring.

Patents can be thought of as features on a map.    If we use the maritime charts as thought canvas, each patent could be a submerged rock, a feature on a coastline, a deep channel, a current, a continent!, a reef, a shoal, a distance of blue water; the owners of these patents could be those with control of a port, influence over trading partners, layers of mines or of marker buoys, or indeed fellow sailors and explorers.

But knowing of one or even a few of such features doesn’t really help navigation and doesn’t help one chose a course for effective sailing and trade.


It is knowing how the pieces fit together, how the features learned about through painstaking exploration meld into a map: a navigation chart, that allows choices to be made that limit risk.

Countries whose success depends on guarding and blocking access to seaways ultimately senesce and implode in economic stagnation, while those which navigate and trade on these waters succeed through economic vigor and growth.

The greatest value in maps is not choosing one particular path. Rather it lies in making it possible of choosing any of countless paths, informed by not making hundreds of  counterproductive or even catastrophic courses.   We simply can’t know what opportunities like ahead, but we should be able to avoid clear and present danger.

These are Rumsfeld’s ‘Known Unknowns’.  The things we could know about that we should know about.

Now to innovation:

Knowing of (or even owning) one or several patents is at best one tiny step in choosing or creating an effective innovation trajectory.

Most importantly we need to understand the landscape, the inventions, components, partners, capital we need to pull together to create an economically viable chance.

We can’t guarantee – by its very nature – that an innovation will succeed.

But we can with great confidence find many points that will guarantee its failure.  If we don’t know of the hundred pieces of the puzzle we require to make our innovation work, if we don’t know what they are, who owns them, how long the control is for, what their motivations might be, how we could choose alternative components, we simply cannot move forward with any confidence or energy.

The patent system as it exists now has swollen to an almost unimaginable complexity and opacity.  There are tens of millions of patents issued, with millions in force in over a hundred countries, and all variable in quality, reach and implications.  Each new technology field spawns regulatory and standards information that is implicit in these disclosures, but not explicit.  Patterns of influence and control, of ownership and permission shift like sands.    But these are critical features to understand if we are to conduct and invest in innovative business practice – especially that informed by the excitement of new science.

This is point of great opportunity.  Exposing the Known Unknowns.

And it is the single greatest enabler of innovation.  To help create open public charts – navigation tools – of the world of innovation intelligence.   Combining unprecedented transparency in patent systems with integration of science, technical, regulatory, legal and business information to create a global resource for all innovation enterprise – in public and in private sector – to actually SEE the hidden shoals, the cryptic opportunities.

We need a facility to make decisions based on clarity and confidence, to reduce the ‘Known Unknown’ to avoidable problems and graspable opportunities.

We need to celebrate the excitement of the right kind of unknowns and let this dominate our innovation culture.

Innovation is a balance between creative and generative processes on one hand, and exposure to the sometimes cryptic logic of a market on the other.    Between these poles are reefs and current that we must map to create a more effective system.


Doing this – creating an open, global cartography for science- and technology-driven problem solving and providing a worldwide resource to support informed decisions,  will truly be Enabling Innovation.

In future blogs and presentations, I’ll go into much more detail on what the state of play is in patent and innovation information, and how this can be changed and democratized.

I’ll also explore the exciting parallels between innovation in economics and society, and evolution in biological systems.   I’ll talk about how radical and riveting new understanding of biological systems evolve can inform and guide breakthroughs in innovation system design.

This blog post is derived from an ex tempore presentation I made on a panel in May in Doha, Qatar at the World Economic Forum’s Global Redesign Summit, and again for ‘enable brisbane’ website.


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