Using Thought Experiments to Develop Innovative Products and Business Models

The most intriguing aspect of Walter Isaacson’s biography on Einstein was his numerous discussions of thought experiments. Einstein conducted many, many thought experiments. Thought experiments helped Einstein to understand and disentangled complex concepts and to develop theories.

“He made imaginative leaps and discerned great principles through thought experiments rather than by methodical inductions based on experimental data. The theories that resulted were at times astonishing, mysterious, and counterintuitive, yet they contained notions that could capture the popular imagination: the relativity of space and time, E=mc2, the bending of light beams, and the warping of space. [2007, W. Isaacson, p. 6]”

“Over the years, he would picture in his mind such things as lightning strikes and moving trains accelerating elevators and falling painters, two-dimensional blind beetles crawling on curved branches, as well as a variety of contraptions designed to pinpoint, at least in theory, the location and velocity of speeding electrons. [2007, W. Isaacson, p. 27]”

Thought experiments need to be rhetorical in a good way.  A good thought experiment should be artful, eloquent, effective and persuasive in conveying the ideas, but not too pretentious or bombastic There is a downside to rhetoric in that the innovator, the scientist or the storyteller may be too good in developing  a colorful and vivid description at the expense of gathering facts and testing the veracity of the theory.  Sometimes thought experiments can actually confuse more than illuminate. The thought experiment may not work because of differences in the eyes of the beholder, because it needs more refinement or because it is invalid. Here are some guidelines for developing your own though experiment in order to tell a clear and cogent story.

  1. You need to be able to explain your concept in 3 or 4 sentences.
  2. You should eventually write your ideas in a paragraph.
  3. You need to use pencil and paper to illustrate your innovation. (Tablets are also Ok, but the interface should not get in the way of your creativity.)
  4. You should try to present your thought experiment on 1 page. It should be self-explanatory.
  5. You should present your thought experiment to many people.
  6. You should refine your thought experiment over and over after you receive feedback.
  7. You should sometimes return to your original iterations and ignore some of the feedback.
  8. You should let your ideas incubate. Layoff the idea for several days and do this often.
  9. You should be obsessed with the project and the compulsive about the details.
  10. Go back to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9. Remember this is a nonlinear iterative process

I believe that thought experiments are the genesis of all innovations and creative process. This includes new products and new business models. Sometimes scientific thought experiments are verified by real-world experiments, data collection, and mathematical proofs.  The innovator progressively validates a thought experiment with the pitch and the business plan. The plan and the pitch are the refinement and incarnation of the entrepreneur’s thought experiment. The ultimate validation is when the business or the innovation goes live.

Figures 1 and 2 illustrates the migration of a thought experiment involving tracking individuals, pets and expensive assets. The initial drawing and narrative was started on Sunday evening and 3.2 was completed by 7am on Tuesday. Feedback from several individuals helped to refine the drawing.  Most of the time was spent futzing around with the interfaces of the two apps and locating symbols and graphics. The idea was derived from several student projects and from watching my son crack our Wi-Fi password in less than an hour using Backtrack. I think similar cracking code could be implemented in a very small unobtrusive device.  CPU, memory, Wi-Fi, cellular and GPS chipsets are shrinking in size and price. This technology has undoubtedly been developed in some form. But, there is always room for improvement and a thought experiment can be used to drive that process.

Here are some additional references on thought experiments:

  • Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography entitled Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon Schuster is one of my favorite books. It does a good job of describing how thought experiments influenced Einstein’s ideas.
  • As expected Wired Magazine has an interesting twist on thought experiments by Greta Lorge
  • Great animations of thought experiments can be found at Brain Pickings. BTW some of these animations don’t really help me to understand the ideas.
  • Very nice overview of thought experiments can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Horowitz and Massey present a detailed discussion of how thought experiments have influenced scientific reasoning and philosophy.
  • Here is an interesting discussion of Einstein’s chasing a beam of light thought experiment by John Norton and go here for more of his philosophy of science work.
  • Another good philosophy book on the what, how and whys of thought experiments was written by Roy Sorenson.
  • Here is an illustration of a brute force method for cracking WiFi access points. This type of tool is available on a number of free digital forensics and penetration testing tools such as Backtrack. No, we are not safe from intrusions.

Figure 1: Thought Experiment 1.0

Kidnapping 1.0

Figure 2: Thought Experiment 3.2

Kidnapping 3.2

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