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Recombinant Uncertainty in Technological Search

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Abstract

While the course of technological change is widely accepted to be highly uncertain and unpredictable, little work has identified or studied the ultimate sources and causes of that uncertainty. This paper proposes that purely technological uncertainty derives from inventors' search processes with unfamiliar components and component combinations. Experimentation with new components and new combinations leads to less useful inventions on average, but it also implies an increase in the variability that can result in both failure and breakthrough. Negative binomial count and dispersion models with patent citation data demonstrate that new combinations are indeed more variable. In contrast to predictions, however, the reuse of components has a nonmonotonic and eventually positive effect on variability.

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