What Does 'Innovation' Even Mean?

The first step toward coming up with better ideas is defining our terms when we talk about innovation, entrepreneurs, and creativity

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I recently returned from the Techonomy Conference, where a hundred conversations with a sparkling array of colleagues has firmly convinced me that we need a new way of talking about innovation.

Don't get me wrong. I think of innovation as fundamentally important and I have devoted much of my professional life to understanding and practicing it. But the word itself is groaning under the weight of multiple meanings.

As a benchmark, if you ask Google how many hits were received for the word "innovation" over the past twelve months, the answer is 2.65 billion. This staggering number is both the good news and the bad news. Good news in the sense that many people are engaged; bad news in that the word is being used so indiscriminately as to be almost meaningless ... at least without a lexicon.

Why do I say this? Consider the recent proliferation of modifiers. We now have "reverse innovation" that examines flows from developing to developed societies. There's "indigenous innovation," which is the Chinese approach to building domestic intellectual assets. Of course we cannot overlook "design innovation," built around the emerging discipline of design thinking. And then there's "social innovation," whose connotations -- from tree-hugging to radically restructuring societal services -- are all over the map. And of course, I've been a culprit as well in coining the term "large-scale innovation" to refer to innovation as a societal as opposed to merely corporate phenomenon.

Given this complexity, it's no surprise that there's a lot of confusion, even at the most basic level. I still get the occasional call along the lines of, "you're an innovation expert, we need some help letting our hair down so we can come up with some 'out of the box' ideas," which conflates creativity and innovation. And then there is the entrepreneurship community, which tends to see innovation as an attribute of the entrepreneur, while the innovation community tends to look at entrepreneurs as the enablers of innovation.

This all reminds me of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions which posits that prior to a paradigm shift - a transition into a new way of looking at things - there is a tendency for hand-waving, the use of metaphors and loose language. We are currently in that phase with regard to innovation, which is only now becoming a genuine field.

All of this leads me to propose the following lexicon, in hopes of better structuring and focusing discussions of innovation, its constituent parts, and related concepts:

1) Creativity is our human ability to come up with new ideas. We are constantly visited with a stream of new mental content - in the form of dreams, free associations, aha's, etc. - that is wired into how our brains function.

2) Of course, not all new content is valuable. Random banging on the keys of a piano doesn't usually lead to the Grammy awards, if you follow my drift. So innovation at its most basic level is the bridging of creativity with the creation of value - whether in financial terms (the latest IPO), social terms (improving mass transit), or both.

3) Furthermore, innovation needs to be about something. I have never heard anyone say, "We need more innovation. Let's build a few more innovation muscles." Innovation is always an answer to a question and becomes activated when astute corporate or societal leaders articulate a compelling purpose for innovation efforts to align around.

4) Innovation differs from invention because of the scale of adoption. The first light bulb or semi-conductor is an invention, but discovering and then successfully deploying these inventions in the marketplace to change the existing order of things is innovation.

5) Entrepreneurs, described famously as dreamers who do, are those who undertake the risk of going from "aha" to realization.

6) Finally, innovation is enabled by human ingenuity. In a sense, it is the "secret sauce."
While innovation is the journey from the problem statement (A) to a result (Z), ingenuity is the capability of getting from A to Z faster. Ingenuity is often about a surprising process in which the dots are connected in unexpected ways. And ingenuity delivers social value, not just economic gain.

In fact, of all the terms I've outlined here, "ingenuity" is perhaps the most under-represented discussions of innovation, and at the same time, one of the most critical elements for addressing the challenges facing global society today. Many of these, from climate change to economic disparity, are escalating at a staggering pace that requires precisely the acceleration of the innovation process that ingenuity can provide.

There is growing recognition of the importance of ingenuity. The Technomy conference presented organizations as diverse as Ashoka and Citi that are invested in supporting human ingenuity. Asohoka's global network of fellows have become an important force for ingenuity in service of society, while Citi has recently announced the FT-Citi Ingenuity Awards to recognize ingenious ideas for addressing urban challenges around the world. It is through such initiatives that we can expect innovation over time to become a genuine field and an achievable dream.

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Presented by

John Kao is Chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and serves as an advisor to Citi on the FT-Citi Ingenuity Awards.

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