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Disruptive Ideas Rely on Old-Fashioned Meetings

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A marvel of modernity is the ability to collaborate with others regardless of location. Researchers can work with a colleague, maybe the only person who has a specialised skill, even if they are halfway across the globe. They can pull together a powerhouse team with a dozen of the brightest minds in the field.

Yet, according to research from the lab of Lingfei Wu, assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Computing and Information, these collaborative teams are producing fewer truly disruptive ideas or radical innovations than their in-person counterparts. The work was published in the journal Nature.

“Today there is much talk about artificial intelligence (AI) supercharging innovation,” said Carl Benedikt Frey, co-author and associate professor of AI & Work at the University of Oxford. “Yet many predicted the same with the advent of the PC and the internet. This should serve as a reminder that there is unlikely to be a pure technological solution to our innovation problems.”

For better or worse, however, technology has changed how science is done: As more scientists and inventors collaborate remotely, they have made discoveries and solved or made progress toward solving long-standing problems. They’ve been able to integrate new discoveries into existing paradigms, expanding our understanding of the world around us.

The way institutions and brands frame global connectedness, “You’d expect that when things connect, they just get better,” Wu said. “But perhaps it takes real people in real rooms to make science and to make radically new, disruptive ideas.”

To figure out if there really were fewer disruptive ideas coming from science than before, Wu’s group first needed a way to quantify what makes an idea disruptive. To do this, PhD student Yiling Lin analyzed data from 20 million research papers published in peer reviewed journals between 1960 and 2020.

If a paper was cited often, but earlier research on the same topic that it built upon and referenced was not, then the team determined it represented a new way of thinking about a subject, one untethered from the past and more disruptive.

To determine which teams worked together in person and which were remote, Lin used the authors’ institutional affiliations as a stand-in for location. “If all team members are in the same city, we inferred it was an on-site team because they could often see each other in person,” she said. If at least one team member lived in another city, that team counted as remote.

The group now had a straightforward way to plot distance against disruption. The results were clear. “We found that when people were farther away from each other, they were less likely to make the real disruptive innovations,” she said. “On-site teams perform better.” The relationship held across disciplines and for about five million patent filings, which Lin also analysed.

“What’s the essential difference between remote collaborations and on-site or in-person collaborations?” Lin asked. She wanted to pinpoint what part of the collaborative process gave in-person teams the edge over remote once. She started by looking at the roles played by each researcher listed on her set of published papers. Declaring one’s role is a newer practice for published research papers, so Lin had a subset of about 90,000 papers to work with.

“Remote teams were more likely to do technical work,” like experimentation and analysis, Lin said. That may be because tools they used, such as computers for coding or algorithms for analyzing datasets, were readily available anywhere. Teams that collaborated in-person engaged in the more conceptual work of conceiving hypotheses and writing, work that was more likely to lead to new, and occasionally disruptive, ideas.

The team had found their answer: It’s the type of work that made the difference. In-person teams tended to do the type of work that was more likely to lead to radical, new ideas. But that’s not an entirely satisfying answer.

“We’re still at the mathematical level,” Wu said. “All we have found so far, with scientific rigor, is that it takes in-person communication to have these disruptive ideas. But we are still curious, ‘Why?’” There are intuitive clues, Wu said. “We can feel the rising temperature of collaboration when we are all together,” he said. “But the conversation is very cold on Zoom.” It’s not conducive to the spur-of-the-moment interactions that can lead to bold new ideas.

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