Remote collaboration fuses fewer breakthrough ideas

Paper by Yiling Lin, Carl Benedikt Frey & Lingfei Wu: “Theories of innovation emphasize the role of social networks and teams as facilitators of breakthrough discoveries. Around the world, scientists and inventors are more plentiful and interconnected today than ever before. However, although there are more people making discoveries, and more ideas that can be reconfigured in new ways, research suggests that new ideas are getting harder to find—contradicting recombinant growth theory. Here we shed light on this apparent puzzle. Analysing 20 million research articles and 4 million patent applications from across the globe over the past half-century, we begin by documenting the rise of remote collaboration across cities, underlining the growing interconnectedness of scientists and inventors globally. We further show that across all fields, periods and team sizes, researchers in these remote teams are consistently less likely to make breakthrough discoveries relative to their on-site counterparts. Creating a dataset that allows us to explore the division of labour in knowledge production within teams and across space, we find that among distributed team members, collaboration centres on late-stage, technical tasks involving more codified knowledge. Yet they are less likely to join forces in conceptual tasks—such as conceiving new ideas and designing research—when knowledge is tacit. We conclude that despite striking improvements in digital technology in recent years, remote teams are less likely to integrate the knowledge of their members to produce new, disruptive ideas…(More)”.