No innovation without invention

by Ivar Slavenburg

When we are talking about Strategic Design, the term Innovation is never far away. It can be said that strategic design is a method to drive innovation. Since these terms are so linked, it seems worthwhile to have a closer look at what they mean. As both businesses and governments seems to agree that there is no future without it, let’s first have a closer look at innovation.

As always, history does provide some nice insights. In this blog "Innovation: The History of a Buzzword" (Emma Green, 2013) it is explained how the word innovation developed through the years. Emma Green cites the work of Benoît Godin, who researched the origins of the word innovation.

The history of the word Innovation

The article first caught my eyes because of the almost ironic use of the word “buzzword” in its title. Nowadays, it seems to be impossible to have a normal conversation about anything without the word being used. If you’re are not in the innovating business or working for a innovative organization, you’re in deep trouble, so it seems. That might be true, or not. It depends a lot on how you define the term. It also seems to depend on when you lived, as Green points out. Being innovative wasn’t always a very good thing. For example, the division line between being innovative and acting against God’s will was drawn rather sharp in medieval days.

It was only during the industrial revolution when technical inventions were considered positive for the first time. The word innovation gets it first definitions in the 30′. In those days inventions become more correlated with science, having no clear commercial goal. Innovation is considered to be the process of turning an invention into constructive change with a clear business model. Bringing new technology to market is funded by governments, providing all kinds of subsidies for laboratories and research foundations.

The lack of inventions since the 1970’s

So, what explains Green’s irony then? Basically, so she states, while citing George Mason economist Tyler Cowen, the number of inventions has dried up since the 1970’s. There is no innovation without invention. It doesn’t mean no new products or services are reaching the market, but these are most of the time based on principles already established decades ago and thus no innovations.

To explain this point, Cowen uses the rise of the Internet as an example. The rapid adoption of network technology, the foundation of the Internet, is not really an innovation, but more a rapid increase of acceptance of an invention done in the 70’s. The real value, the business model, still has to be figured out. However, since the Internet has already changed the business of journalists and academics quite a bit, they consider it to be an innovation already. Journalist and academics are also talking rather a lot of innovation.

Personally, I think Cowen underestimates a little the impact that Internet already has on many businesses. However, considering the clear link between invention and innovation, he definitely has a point. If the term invention can be clearly defined, that is. Considering all the issues with patents, that is a bit of problem. Therefore, a clear definition of innovation remains difficult, at least not one in the mathematical sense of the word.

Further Reading

  1. Emma Green (2013), Innovation: The History of a Buzzword. Retrieved from