Technical and Non-technical innovation

by Ivar Slavenburg

In past blogs I wrote about both the history of the word innovation and the classification of innovation. As it turned out, this was not so easy to do. The word Innovation and the verb derived from, to innovate, are used in many different circumstances and as such it can be defined a little bit different all the time. Obviously, that isn’t very convenient, but it is just an expression of the complexity involved with innovation. What it is exactly and how to do can not uniformly be defined, nor can the result.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to have a meaningful discussion about innovation and therefore strategic design, as is the goal of this blog, if not some guidance can be given on what is meant with both terms. For this blog, let’s stay focussed on innovation. Based on the blogs “No innovation without invention” and “Classifying Innovation”, we can say that when we try to innovate, we:

  1. Try to define a certain problem properly, by
  2. Establishing different options of resolving the problem, and;
  3. Using new, non established ways of reasoning and methodologies.

Now, this is clearly a first draft, as the devil is in the detail with these kind of things. We have to dive in a little bit deeper to really understand it. For that matter, I would like to point to the use of the word “by”, especially in the first line. It’s always an iterative process, even if we try to give guidance, as in this case. From this guidance it becomes apparent that innovation is not solving an known problem with a known solution. That’s “business as usual”.

The definition of innovation

Personally, I have always liked the definition that has been published by the CBS (the Dutch Bureau for Statistics), even though it doesn’t completely cover the guidance:

Innovation are all activities aimed at renewal within a company.

It is a bit unclear to me why they limit innovation to companies. I don’t see why governments or NGO’s can not be innovative.The explanation CBS is giving for this definition doesn’t make this limitation either. Unfortunately, their website only gives the explanation in Dutch, because that’s when it becomes really interesting.For an exact translation you can use google or bing to translate the text for you. When you study the explanation a little bit, it becomes clear CBS is making an interesting and very distinct devision:

  1. Technological innovation concerns the refresh or significant improvement of products or services, or the processes by which products and services are produced;
  2. Non-technological innovation concerns the refreshment of, for example, the organisation. If there is structurally weak performance at a particular level in an organization, innovation can be a part of the solution.

This devision is the reason I have always liked it. Nevertheless, especially in the domain of Design, this definition could be causing question marks. One could, and should, ask where is the customer in all of this. The answer is that the customer is not always the primary reason why innovation takes place. An internal change of working procedures isn’t necessarily leading to a better product or service for the customer. It might just be that an innovation leads to lower costs, but to transfer these savings to the customer is a choice. As such, there is no direct link between being innovative as a company and being user centric.

The motive for innovation

The key to this is in the description of non-technological innovation, where the focus is on the behaviour of the company. That can be linked to what we started this blog with. Is a company defining its problems from a customer point of view or from it’s own (or also called “outside in” vs. “inside out”). Is focussing on options that benefit the customer or its own (e.g. more profit). In other words, is the company working for its own, short term, benefit (e.g. Shareholder value), or for the long term, meaning its customers. That will have profound influence on the way of reasoning and hence the final solution it will come up with. It determines the priorities when innovating.

As already said in the beginning, innovation is an iterative process. We can focus on trying to define problems from a customer point of view and so try to force a customer friendly way of thinking. However, why not try to do it the other way around. Create customer friendly ways of thinking so that, eventually, the final problem and identified potential solutions will be customer friendly as well. I believe this is possible and here is where design could come in. I would like to call it user centric innovation, as somewhere in the innovation process vital consumer centric steps are build in that forces the whole process to become user centric.