Shaping the innovation landscape

Looking for a means to better explain and express some of the complexities entailed in innovation, I feel that landscape can be a quite powerful metaphor. Of course there can be different ways to think about an innovation landscape, depending on your specific interest. As I am focused on the value that innovation must provide to society at large, on the purpose it must fulfil, I view the innovation landscape as the tension field that takes shape between demand and supply.

I was first attracted to this concept by Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Ingenuity Gap. Already in his opening statement, he observes:

Today, a disturbingly large proportion of people in rich countries seem to believe that our ingenuity is practically boundless and that our technical experts have all the authority and knowledge they need to deftly manage our ever more complex world. These beliefs and the complacency they produce are often completely unwarranted: in fact, we often have only superficial control over the complex systems we’ve made and critically depend upon.

This presents a clear warning: we cannot simply take it for granted that our wits can master any problem. I’ve addressed a similar concern in The myth of unlimited capacity already. But to give this thinking a bit more structure, it will be useful to take a deeper dive into the need for innovation, and to contrast that with the generation of innovation. Homer-Dixon’s definition of ingenuity guides the way:

I defined ingenuity as ideas that can be applied to solve practical technical and social problems […] Ingenuity includes not only truly new ideas […] but also ideas that though not fundamentally novel are nonetheless useful.

This is essential to my understanding of innovation: ideas have the potential to solve problems, but ideas themselves do not constitute solutions. Rather, building on my working definition of innovation as a novel and effective linkage between a problem and a solution, an idea must be applied to a problem and effectively solve it for this idea to become the core of an innovation. Against this backdrop, I’ll consider problems as the demand side, and ingenuity (the ideas that have the potential to solve problems) as the supply side of innovation. The innovation landscape then is shaped by the interactions and linkages between problems and ingenious ideas.

Let’s start on the demand side: where do our problems come from? I have to confess that „demand“ is partially misleading. The term implies the existence of somebody actively and consciously expressing a need, which is entirely correct in many cases, especially in a business context. But at the same time, beyond that visible, i.e., articulated need, there is another kind of problem that doesn’t have a spokesperson or advocate. Ian Morris formulated the paradox of development that  today’s solutions can create tomorrow’s problems, begging for new solutions that might spring yet new problems. (Joseph Tainter made similar observations on the effects of society’s problem solving strategy.) These new problems come into existence without conscious human intervention, let alone intention. Still, these unintended consequences of previous innovations do require further, innovative solutions, even if they are not explicitly articulated. In summary, you might say that the innovation demand consists of known and unknown problems.

Unfortunately, the supply side is no less complex, as ingenuity comes from a variety of sources. The creation of new ideas and the generation of original thought are amongst the deepest mysteries of the human brain. The decoding of this riddle is a challenge for cognitive psychologists and neurologist, and I admit that I have little to contribute to support them in their struggle. However, I am convinced that the diversity of thought, and the plurality of schools of thought, encourage and stimulate the creation of new ideas. I believe that the exposure to knowledge from a broad range of sources can effectively spark new thought. And that introduces the second source of ingenious ideas: one might call it legacy ideas, I prefer to call it existing knowledge. Homer-Dixon acknowledges this important element in his definition of ingenuity: ideas don’t have to be fundamentally new, as long as they are useful. In summary, and similar to the demand side, the supply side of innovation comprises known and unknown ingenious ideas.

What happens between the two poles of demand and supply is what we usually call innovation. But this is not a linear or even a predetermined process. Rather, the interactions and linkages between problems and ingenious ideas shape the innovation landscape. And these interactions and linkages themselves are influenced by different factors. Institutions define the general rules of the game for society to function. Organisations like companies or research establishment focus attention on specific problems within their remit, while providing access to resources, assets, and skillsEntrepreneurs focus their attention and effort on a specific innovation to solve a specific problem.

Though these three influencers may show considerable overlap at times, it is important to acknowledge the different scales they are working at. Within a given society, institutions affect the global shape of the innovation landscape. In contrast, organisations have regional influence over the landscape. And the individual entrepreneur, despite the potential solitude of his endeavour, still exerts local influence over the innovation landscape in his immediate vicinity. Collectively, these three factors moderate the concrete form that the innovation landscape will take between problems a society is faced with, and the ingenious ideas it generates and has access to.

Obviously, this innovation landscape is many different facets. It is shaped between demand and supply, with both sides comprising known as well as unknown elements. At the same time, the innovation landscape is affected by three agents that work at global, regional, and local levels. But how do all these bits and pieces work together? And could we potentially use this concept of an innovation landscape as a reference frame for identifying some strengths and weaknesses of our innovation system? I’ll try to cast some light on these questions in an upcoming post.

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