Innovation: The History of a Buzzword

In the 17th century, "innovators" didn't get accolades. They got their ears cut off.

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The word innovation might be mantra of business leaders and the inevitable future star of The Atlantic  and Aspen Institute's forthcoming Aspen Ideas Festival. But the irony behind the king of buzzwords is that, originally, "innovation" wasn't a compliment. It was an accusation.

In fact, shouts of "Innovator!" used to be akin to charges of heresy. As with any question of intellectual history, the path of innovation through the centuries is complicated. Canadian historian Benoît Godin has done extensive research on the topic; oversimplifying his work quite a bit, a few of the key moments in the strange history of how innovation is framed and discussed seem particularly striking.

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According to Godin, innovation is the most late-blooming incarnation of previously used terms like imitation and invention. When "novation" first appeared in thirteenth century law texts as a term for renewing contracts, it wasn't a term for creation -- it referred to newness. In the particularly entrenched religious atmosphere of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, doctrinal innovation was anathema. Some saw this kind of newness as an affiliation with Puritanism, or worse -- popery. Godin cites an extreme case from 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, began publishing pamphlets advocating against church officials as innovators, levying Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: "My Sonne, feare thou the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change" (citation Godin's, emphasis mine). In turn, the pot-stirring Puritan was accused of being the true "innovator" and sentenced to a life in prison and worse -- a life without ears.

Innovation began taking root as a term associated with science and industry in the nineteenth century, matching the forward march of the Industrial Revolution, although the language of that period focused more strongly on invention, particularly technical invention. Several factors helped invention develop a prestigious and positive connotation, including the rise of consumer culture, increased numbers of patents, and strong government focus on building labs for research and development, Godin argues.

So when did the focus change from invention to innovation? Godin attributes this differentiation to a 1939 definition offered by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. He defined invention as an act of intellectual creativity undertaken without any thought given to its possible economic import, while innovation happens when firms figure out how to craft inventions into constructive changes in their business model.

Over time, a new element got woven into the definition of innovation, shifting its common understanding to "bringing to market a new technology." In Godin's view, this was especially tied to government funding for research and development in laboratories and foundations. From the early 1950s until the 1980s, he said, innovation was understood as a process: theoretical research in labs provided an initial foundation; applications of that research were devised and developed; and from there, they became commercialized products. Innovation was thought of as a packaged, predictable research product, and according to Godin, government funding for these kinds of ventures directly corresponded to the rise of this understanding of innovation.

So how does today's fixation on innovation stack up against this history? For roughly 100 years, from about 1870 to 1970, the American economy brimmed with newness. Since then, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen claims, the forward march of technological progress has hit something of a dry spell, regardless of what all the talk about innovation may indicate.

"There's too much self-congratulations," he said. "Americans have this self-image that we're the great inventors, [but] we've dropped the ball in many areas. We also see a lot of social tolerance -- people confuse that with technological breakthroughs. [They have] a vague sense that things are getting better."

The Internet does count as one big innovation from the past few decades, Cowen says, but he believes most of the economic gains from the Internet will come from applications that have yet to be developed in areas like manufacturing. What has been achieved, however, is a greater ability to manipulate information, which has an outsized affect on the lives and work of a relatively small segment of the population. These people happen to be the folks that spend the most time talking about innovation, though: journalists and academics.

So how could we improve the way we talk about innovation? Have a little humility, Cowen says. "We're going to do it anyways, so we should try to do it right. Look at the period from 1870 to 1920 or maybe 1940 and think about how unbelievably creative and powerful that was."

Although actual innovation might be in decline, mentions of innovation are resurgent. In an interesting twist of history, the word also seems to have transformed into shorthand for "anything new and/or good." Google's useful Ngram database of word use finds that not only is "innovation" suddenly a bigger deal than "invention," but also total mentions have reached an all-time high.

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For this, you can probably thank  the annual buffet of lists that crown the "30 under 30" or "40 under 40" most "disruptive" innovators in any given field and the fact that "lack of innovation" has become the easiest way to explain everything from slow job growth to Apple's falling stock.

Measurable innovation might be on the decline, but, for some reason, we just can't stop talking about it.