A working definition …

As a first waypoint on this journey, I sense that it is helpful to reflect on how I intend to use the term “innovation” in the course of the evolving discussion. Without further ado, I’d offer the following working definition:

INNOVATION is the development and implementation
of an unprecedented problem solution.

Let’s see what those words cover: First, this statement defines innovation as a creative activity (“development“) that results in a practical outcome (“implementation“). Second, it contains the aspect of newness (“unprecedented“). And thirdly, it combines “problem” with “solution“.

Now, there are of course a couple of implications.

  • The newness of an innovation is in matching a solution with a problem. This might be a known solution applied to a new problem, it could be a new solution applied to an old problem, or it might be a new solution for a new problem.
  • The combination of “solution” with “problem” defines a purpose: for something to be considered an innovation is most solve a problem. This might seem obvious, but a great solution without a matching problem is only a great idea, it doesn’t fulfil a purpose.
  • Finally, innovation results in practical adoption of a newly developed idea; it clearly extends beyond the theoretical identification of a potential solution.

It is essential for society that innovation has a purpose for it to generate value. No purpose, no value. Even an outstanding invention like the wheel is useless for society if it doesn’t find its purpose in practical applications like carts or chariots. I am entirely agnostic whether the problem or the solution comes first, but without matching a solution with a problem, even the greatest idea doesn’t have purpose, and is of no value for society (other than through its potential to maybe help solve a problem later). And even if I have a great idea for a solution as well as a matching problem, for that to become an innovation I need to implement it to actually create value for society. In short: purpose + implementation = value for society.

As I said, this can only be a working definition for now; it will likely require revision and adaptation at a later stage to develop a sufficiently complete and precise definition. A final definition should then be broad enough to embody the following characteristics.

  • It should be inclusive, i.e. comprising all kinds of innovation (e.g. new technologies, products, processes, services, business models, methodologies, …).
  • It should be scaleable to cover the full range of innovation impact, spanning from a marginal product improvement all the way through the disruption of established business models to the creation of entirely new industry sectors.
  • It should be time-agnostic, i.e. applicable to historic, current, and likely future contexts.

Now it’s your turn. What do you think? What’s missing? What’s unbalanced? Happy to discuss.


  1. cardiffkook says:

    I can find no obvious problems with this definition and framework. I especially like the focus on problem solving, practicality and emergent value.

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