The ancient Buddhist philosophical concept of “emptiness”, going back nearly two millennia, has some interesting present-day implications for the process of idea creation and development in innovation. These implications relate to the desirability of high levels of technical diversity, in-person interaction and temporal intensity within innovation team processes. One can also draw conclusions about the use of artificial intelligence in such processes.
Buddhist Philosophy of Emptiness
The philosophy of “emptiness”, or sunyata, is conventionally attributed to the Mahayana Buddhist thinker of India, Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250 CE). The Dalai Lama writes about emptiness in a 2005 book:
Everything is composed of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly changing dynamic relations. Things and events are ‘empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence…that affords independence (The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom, 2005, p. 47).
…causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses independent existence would be immutable and self-enclosed (p 47).
Regarding innovation, emptiness suggests that you cannot change, transform or “innovate” something that is immutable and self-enclosed. Real innovation thus implies emptiness in an ultimate philosophical sense. Ideas and other things do not exist independently but only as an ever-changing nexus of interdependent and causal relationships (The Dalai Lama, 2005). Steve Jobs, himself a student of Buddhism, said that, “Creativity is just connecting things” (Wired , 1995). Jobs’ pithy observation finds deeper resonance in the Buddhist theory of emptiness.
The Dalai Lama maintains that physical scientists are approaching the Buddhist concepts of interconnection and emptiness. There are “…parallels between Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness and quantum physics” (2005, p. 50). An example is quantum “entanglement” between separated subatomic particles. In their interdisciplinary book, The Quantum and the Lotus (2001, 2004), Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan argue that there are “many ways in which science and Buddhism confirm and complement each other…”
Implications for Innovation Processes
(Note: This section draws upon two articles I published previously in Innovationmanagement.se: “Zen vs. Zoom: Is Person-to-Person Interaction Better for Innovation?” (June 8, 2022), and “Quantum Computing, Zen Philosophy and Space-Time” (January 13, 2020).)
What does all of this imply for the process of idea creation? A simple linear approach will not likely work. First, one must be sensitive to all the different and overlapping contexts that an idea or set of related ideas “exist” in—i.e., scientific, engineering, company organizational, business operations, consumer, supplier, competitive-economic, government-legal, academic classification, historical-evolutionary, etc. This holistic attentiveness should embrace all of the causal relationships tied to the idea through different domains and directions. Again, according to the Buddhist emptiness principle, a new idea cannot be totally independent of existing ideas or their corresponding causal nexus.
An intuitive thought process, also stressed by Steve Jobs, is probably essential at some point—i.e., grasping in one’s mind a changing subset of different and new causal directions that one might go in while simultaneously being receptive to a “sudden enlightenment” idea combination that solves a particular problem or achieves a certain objective.
One person can easily lose track of all the connections and subpart relationships within a changing causal nexus of potential new ideas if the decision-making process is too slow, dragged out, linear/sequential or casual and inattentive. Technically diverse teams and a focused supporting cast operating within a tight period of creative engagement may be required. Multiple thought experiments, whiteboarding, testing and prototyping should be included.
In other words, an organization should build a cross-functional, time-, employee- and team-intensive learning space or study environment for evaluating all new ideas and associated problems at the same time—what one might call an intense innovation “space-time”. Participants would then be in a better position to identify connections, intersections, complementarities and convergences—even patterned networks—between different ideas, thus creating more potentially innovative concepts, both incremental and disruptive.
Implications for Artificial Intelligence
Employees executing the intensive idea development processes implied by Buddhist emptiness philosophy should have the creative opportunity to go beyond what artificial intelligence (AI) is currently capable of doing. An AI device is inherently dependent on a set of programming inputs, thus dependent on information that has an independent existence/essence outside of the AI. The AI device cannot run on “emptiness”. A team of human innovators, however, could in theory at least, operate on the Buddhist emptiness principle—identifying and connecting a wide range of contingent and causal relationships to develop something new within one or more product or service domains.