Innovation & Science

Intuitively we know that science is somehow related to innovation. It is somewhere at the origin of innovation, isn’t it? Science underpins innovation, doesn’t it? But this relation is not as simple or straight as we might want it to be; there’s no self-evident direct connection. I’ve looked at this dilemma in an earlier post, and I’ll try to shed some more light today.

Science. What is it? There are a number of different perspectives of what the very essence of science is. I’d like to provide two elements that I believe are foundational, even though they do not present one integrated definition. The first is simply my personal credo:

Science is the passion for creating knowledge.

Science is an endeavour that requires ambition, as much as it is a journey into partially uncharted territory. It is driven by human curiosity, and it simply results in: knowledge. Effectively, science strives to expand the repository of knowledge.

The second element is a bit more formalistic:

Science organises a body of knowledge. 

Science gives structure to what we know. Think about the scientific disciplines and how they help us organise our knowledge and understand what we know and what we don’t. While the first element is focused on generating new knowledge, the second gravitates around what I’d call “meta-knowledge“: what we know about what we know. Both elements individually take a very different position on the main purpose of science, but together they give us a comprehensive view. And it’s all about knowledge.

But how then does knowledge relate to innovation. In my working definition of innovation, I’ve stated that:

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

Now you might call it a no-brainer –and rightfully so– that there must be some knowledge involved in innovation. While that is quite obvious, it doesn’t really help to get a better understanding.

As the direct leap from science to innovation does not yield additional insights, I’d suggest a little detour via technology. I’ve argued earlier that technology and innovation are two sides of the same coin: a new technology is an innovation, and an innovation is a technology. We can thus continue the discussion based on Brian Arthur’s work:

Technology is the orchestration of phenomena to a purpose.

How then does science underpin technology? There are of course many different ways, but most easily we can take that definition piece by piece, word by word.

  • First, phenomena. A phenomenon is something in the real world that we can perceive with our senses (as against something that we might only imagine). Phenomena are thus accessible through observation and experiment, and science seeks to expand our knowledge of phenomena, including the discovery of new phenomena (think Higgs-Boson). This branch of science is the fundamental portion, a.k.a. basic science (essential, not simple).
  • Next, orchestration. It’s one thing to know about the existence of a phenomenon, it’s something entirely different to know how to use it for achieving a desired outcome. This knowledge of how to apply a phenomenon, rarely individually, but most often together with others, this knowing how is the focus of another branch. That’s what we call applied science.
  • Finally, purpose. Science can also steer innovation to yield specific technology. That occurs if basic science reaches the limits of what can be observed with available tools and techniques. In such cases, further scientific progress depends upon improved or entirely new technologies that allow for more accurate observations. This might be a small percentage of all the impact that science has on innovation, but it is still highly relevant, because it directly prepares the ground for scientific breakthroughs. In such cases, you might even say that basic science defines the purpose of applied science.

I need to point out that there is no necessary sequence requiring that science must come first and technology is always second. Rather, it’s a delicate dance, similar to the co-evolution of society and technology. And while technology is often the more visible part (the things that get in the shops and on the shelves, the things that are material and tangible), science still lays the foundation. More precisely, due to the significant time lag between discovering a phenomenon and actually understanding and mastering its application, it was past scientific work that laid the foundation for the latest technology / innovation.

There’s another facet of the relation between science and innovation that I didn’t touch yet: innovation in science. How does science evolve? I’m currently enjoying Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Published already in 1962, his concept of paradigm shifts is still entirely up to date. Hence I’ll explore some of his ideas in a later post.



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