Combinatorial Innovation

Co-creating impact by combining resources in new ways

In this module we will look at what combinatorial innovation is, how it exists in nature and in some of the most important inventions in history, and how pooling resources in new ways can increase the impact of collective action.

Key Takeaways

  • Combinatorial Innovation is the art and science of creating something new from existing resources.
  • A ‘combinatorial’ approach increases the chances of a breakthrough discovery or invention.
  • It’s not a new concept: it already exists in us, in nature, design, popular culture and in business.
  • Combining unconventional resources in new, creative ways leads to a multiplier effect, increasing our impact.

Video Tutorials

What’s Combinatorial Innovation?

Innovation means creating something entirely new from scratch right? Not exactly. At Asia P3 Hub we champion an ideology called ‘combinatorial innovation’ - the idea of combining existing knowledge and resources in new ways to co-create solutions to complex challenges. It’s the ‘secret sauce’ both for our Hub model and our approach to partnerships for social impact.

In this module we will look at what combinatorial innovation is, how it exists in nature and in some of the most important inventions in history, and how pooling resources in new ways can increase the impact of collective action.

Combinatorial Innovation is the art and science of creating something new from a diverse range of available resources. We love FHI 360’s definition of innovation:

Anything different than standard practice that has the potential for radical social, environmental or economic impact.

Combinatorial innovation is not that new a concept. It turns out, combinatorial innovation is built into us biologically. It is built into our culture – think about the concept in popular culture of ‘remixing’. And many of the ‘inventions’ that we consider groundbreaking are actually combinatorial.

We are Combinatorial

Genetic recombination is nature’s most fundamental form of combinatorial technology. The reason why we are all completely unique is because we are wired at the genetic level to be different. We inherit half of our genetic codes from our father and the other half from our mother. This creates genetic diversity.

Genetic diversity increases resilience, so that a disease or a harsh environmental change doesn’t end up wiping out the entire species. Hopefully the genetic diversity of the offspring increases the chance of survivors as some of the offspring’s unique genetic makeup enables them to survive in a new environment.

What Else Can Combinatorial Innovation Do?

In a 2015 article called “Are we nearly there yet”, sustainability and corporate social responsibility expert John Elkington wrote: “Instead of breakthrough innovations flowing from individual "Eureka!" moments or single giant leaps, most important innovations are combinatorial, pulling together existing ideas.”

Combinatorial innovation actually increases the likelihood of breakthrough discoveries/ inventions, especially when combining different areas of study. Here’s some research data to back that. Research over 2 centuries of US patent data shows:

  • Research productivity declines if new elements for combination (keyword combination) or new information about underlying parameters are not discovered.
  • Patenting increases are correlated to new combinations made before the patent was granted.

In other words, just like our genetic makeup, adding diversity or new elements helps to increase the potential of the area of study.

15/20 of the most significant scientists in all of history were accomplished in other areas of their studies. In other words, 75% of most important scientific discoveries were made by scientists who are ‘polymaths’ or ‘all-rounders’, or people who have not restricted their research to just their made area of studies and as a result, made breakthrough discoveries in these other fields.

Nobel Laureate scientists are 2-20x more likely to engage in the arts than their counterparts. They’re:

  • 2x more likely to play a musical instrument
  • 5x more likely to engage in crafts
  • 8x more likely to engage in visual arts
  • 10x more likely to write poetry
  • 20x more likely to engage in performing art.

People who make breakthrough discoveries tend to have broad fields of studies and interests. And some of the world’s most creative thinkers have mastered the art of ‘borrowing’ ideas across domains.

In the book ‘Steal like an Artist’, Austin Kleon suggests borrowing is not enough and that we should steal... like an artist. The book has some interesting examples of stealing ideas from some of the top people in their fields. But the author is careful to clarify that there is a difference between good theft and bad theft. Good theft:

  • Honors
  • Studies
  • Steals from Many
  • Gives Credit
  • Transforms
  • Remixes

Or as Pablo Picasso put it: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Examples of Combinatorial Innovation

Steve Jobs famously drew inspiration from buildings, vehicles, home appliances, calligraphy, arcade machines, polaroid and Zen Buddhism for his product designs. Here are some other examples of how taking ideas from one field of study and combining them with another can create interesting results.

Combinatorial Innovation to Kill Antibiotic-Resistant Bugs

A scientific breakthrough to kill superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics is to NOT use drugs but to create a star-shaped polymer. The star-shaped structures, are short chains of proteins called 'peptide polymers', and were created by a team from the Melbourne School of Engineering. The team included Professor Greg Qiao and PhD candidate Shu Lam, from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Combinatorial Innovation to Build Google’s Early Day Redundancy Infrastructure

In Google’s early days, when trying to build a redundancy infrastructure for its low-cost data centres, Google did something outside of the norm. Instead of hiring a networking expert, they hired a neuroscientist, so that they could model Google’s infrastructure after the brain’s ability to heal itself.

Invention Or Combinatorial Innovation?

Each of the following innovations were groundbreaking in their own rights and transformed the way we live, travel, and consume information.


Which of the following innovations were combinatorial innovations?

  1. The Printing Press
  2. The Digital Camera
  3. The Jet Engine


If you guessed all of the above, you’re right! Each of the above innovations that transformed the way we live, combined elements of existing technology, and knowledge. The invention of the jet engine combined a compressor with a combustion chamber and a turbine, all existing technologies. The jet engine became Asia P3 Hub’s go-to image!

Combinatorial Innovation Maximises Resource Utility

Symbiotic mutualism – you probably learned about it at school, but what is it? Close, long-term mutually beneficial interaction between two biological organisms.

Symbiotic Mutualism in Nature

A classic example is the clownfish and the sea anemone. The clownfish feeds on small invertebrates that otherwise have potential to harm the sea anemone, and the waste from the clownfish provides nutrients to the sea anemone. The clownfish is additionally protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging cells, which the clownfish is immune to. The clownfish also emits a high-pitched sound that deters butterfly fish, which would otherwise eat the anemone.

Some tropical plants have a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with the hummingbird. The hummingbirds gets access to the plant’s nectar, while the plant benefits by pollination.

Combinatorial innovation maximises resource utility, not maximizing the resource itself. Often, the amount of resources is not the issue. The issue is our ability to utilise the resources around us.

Assuming that resources are not an issue, population growth tends to curve upwards in a hockey stick manner. But what happens after a while? Population size plateaus off. This tends to be the case for all species. This limit is called the ‘carrying capacity’ of the species, which is the limit of the species to extract further resources due to capability constraints.

With mutualism, the carrying capacity for both species increases, compared to either species alone; hence increasing the population size for both species. There’s actually a formula for this. We won’t go into the Lotka-Volterra Equation here, but this is what it looks like.

Symbiotic Mutualism in Business

How is this relevant to business? Let’s look to the business world for an example of symbiotic mutualism and how it can maximise resource utility.

Coca Cola and McDonald’s is probably one of the best examples. The 2 companies have been growing together since 1955, often leveraging on each other’s office space when they open up new markets. McDonald’s is so important to Coke that it is the only customer with its own dedicated division.

What Do Symbiotic Mutualism And A Combinatorial Approach Have To Do With Partnerships?

Asia P3 Hub co-creates partnerships within the people-public-private sector to solve poverty challenges. We believe that it is possible to innovate without creating anything ground-breakingly new. We can innovate by pooling the resources we have to create new solutions that tackle poverty issues. The magic is in the assembly or how we put these existing resources together in new ways.

We are strong proponents of multi-sector partnership to tackle the world’s most complex challenges. Symbiotic mutualism gives us an insight into how we can create innovation by assembling existing resources in new ways, through partnerships.

In symbiotic mutualism, there are only two things that are being exchanged. You either exchange a service or a resource. How can we map this combinatorial approach to a partnership model?

If we list out the conventional types of services and resources that tend to be exchanged in a partnership, we tend to look at conventional services and resources like:

  • Services: expertise, volunteering
  • Resources: money, products, infrastructure.

In fact, in most partnerships it is very tempting to jump straight in to talk about who will be forking out the money up-front, and the second-best option would be seen as. at gifts-in-kind, usually in the form of products. We advise against this, as it tends to lock our minds into a transaction. You give me the money, and I deliver you something else.

When we talk about partnerships, we need to broaden our playing field in order to think outside of the box, and open up the possibilities of new and unconventional services and resources that can be exchanged.

Unconventional Resource & Service Leverage

Rebuilding Notre-Dame

The rebuilding efforts after the recent, tragic Notre-Dame fire have brought in some unlikely contributors with unconventional resources. The gaming company Ubisoft developed the game Assassin’s Creed Unity, of which the cathedral was a centerpiece. Ubisoft had spent two years building a thoroughly detailed version of the cathedral, and cataloguing its structure.

They combed through photos just to get the architecture right, and worked with texture artists to make sure that each brick was as it should be. The company is happy to lend its expertise in helping with the rebuilding efforts of the cathedral.

An unlikely source for language data sets

Here’s another interesting one. An Artificial Intelligence company wanted to license some hard to access data sets on languages. You might expect them to get it from an established language training company. Instead, they sought help from a bible translation NGO. In their years of bible translation, they had amassed very robust data sets on a spectrum of languages, which the AI company could license from.

How Does This Apply To Tackling Some Of The World’s Biggest Challenges?

What does a combinatorial approach have to do with tackling some of the most complex problems? Combinatorial innovation means that each stakeholder brings to the table their unique assets such as technical expertise, industry knowledge, human resources, networks, and financial resources. When we combine these resources in new, creative and meaningful ways we can co-create dynamic, innovative solutions that change people’s lives for the better while generating net value for all involved.

When we’re tackling challenges such as poverty, education, climate change, water and sanitation, we believe everyone in the value chain – whether a teacher, businessperson or local government official at a community level to national or multinational corporations and NGOs – has diverse perspectives, expertise and networks to contribute. The ‘magic’ and power of a combinatorial approach has become apparent to us as we’ve worked with many stakeholders across 17 countries since 2016.

Here’s another idea that we toyed with for a while. When it comes to natural disasters, usually the infrastructure to deliver clean water gets destroyed. We asked ourselves - is there a faster way for us to deploy potable water to the disaster-affected communities? We were exploring the thought of getting cruise ships to fill their ballast tanks with clean water as a possible roving clean water source. It’s a long shot, but we do try to think outside the box.


Identify unconventional resources

  1. List down some partners (current or prospective) who might be able to provide you with unconventional resources.
  2. Think about what resources you have that you could contribute/ combine/ pool, and what benefit your partners might get.


Here are some key resources on Combinatorial Innovation. Our downloadable Hub-in-a-Box guide also includes useful and relevant tools. And we’ve compiled additional tools and resources, that Asia P3 Hub has found the most useful in its journey so far on the resources section of the Asia P3 Hub website.