‘Do you remember the wind-up radio that was invented by Trevor Baylis?’ my radio asked me. ‘I do indeed’, I replied (hopefully not aloud). My interest sufficiently piqued, I shared the next few minutes of my morning commute with Radio 4’s Today team as they discussed two entries to the Design and Innovation Awards.The item got me thinking about some recent debates that I have been involved in concerning innovation. There are some that consider innovation to be a black art, the preserve of a select few who drive ground-breaking technological advancements. One person actually stated “I used to work for NASA and what we did was innovation. It’s just a buzzword now”.
It struck me that here was a problem with the word innovation – not that it has become just another buzzword, but that it is being used to describe invention.
The stereotypical inventor is the crazy-haired, slightly eccentric person (usually a man actually, but in these enlightened times who would go as far as to say it?) who rushes into a room with rolls of papers containing the secrets to some ground breaking new technology whilst muttering “we’ve got to go back Marty!”.
The inventor is often someone who is not good with people, not good with business and, in the movies, is either mad or provides comic relief. When we say “he is a serial inventor” in the business world, it rarely equates to a positive statement.
So did inventors reinvent themselves?
Perhaps they employed a crack team of highly paid Marketing Executives to do it for them, and those highly paid Marketing Executives came up with another ‘i’ word – innovator. Inventors were sceptical at first – it sounded a little bit like re-animator. “Hold on,” they said, “we are not mad scientists. Those guys have crazy hair and wear white lab coats”.
But the marketing people said, “Go with us on this – enjoy a double decaf latte in our creative zone and look at some mood boards”. The inventors did. The mood was infectious, like a wave of creative stimulus cascading down over the shoreline of some undiscovered country, and everyone got a little bit carried away.
Then finance got involved. “Impossible” they said, demonstrating their own cleverness in the use of of “i” words as well as numbers. “We can’t do that!” they said, “It’s never been done before!” they said. Numbers were crunched, and the whole thing was considered too impractical and risky. The project was moth-balled.
This kind of negative reaction is a natural response to something new. Creative ideas are often greeted with negativity and ‘but’ responses. The brain is conditioned to process new information systematically and when our existing experience-based filing system does not have an obvious slot so we dismiss the new stimulus as “bad”. The aforementioned radio program illustrated this beautifully. It featured a story about adaptive glasses that allow the wearer to "tune" the glasses to correct his or her own vision without the need for expensive specialist equipment. On return to the studio, someone commented that “They won’t catch on. They resemble a pair of syringes” (or words to that effect; I was concentrating on my driving after all). I am sure that the inventor was over the moon – if he had a rocket ship that is.
In fact, the roots of the word innovation can be traced back to the thirteenth century when the term ‘novation’ was used to describe the ‘renewing of an obligation by contractual change’. Novation became a derogatory term and a ‘novator’ was considered to be someone that was not to be trusted.
Machiavelli was one of the first writers to use the word innovation, using it in 1625 to describe change. Then, in the late nineteenth century a French socialist called Gabriel Tarde wrote what can be considered to be the first theory of innovation as a way of explaining social change.
During the 1920s to the 1940s various definitions of innovation were introduced by sociologists concerned with new working methods, environmental transformation and fresh ideas or processes. Once the concept of process innovation was established the economists gave it their own twist in the 1960s – innovation as being the commercialisation of invention.
Now, before this becomes an etymological discourse on semantic progression, let me bring this back to why I was rambling on in the first place.
Innovation may be used inappropriately from time to time but this does not mean that we should dismiss it as a buzzword.
Invention is an important part of the story and some would argue is the pinnacle of technological creativity – providing a unique insight to make something completely novel. But many inventions fail because they fail to make money.
If we consider the evolution of its usage, innovation can be correctly defined as ‘the process of turning creative ideas into something that generates value’. In business, that means having a positive impact on the bottom line. And that can include doing anything that you have not used in your own business before by borrowing or imitating something that has been proven to work in other industries; creating new markets, creative problem solving and developing new products.
It’s not rocket science.
But it can be.