How research pushes the boundary …

Research is often characterised as the act of intense and structured search. Though this view is not wrong, it doesn’t get to the core of what research is and what it is about. Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive perspective, defining research as:

creative work undertaken on a systematic basis
in order to increase the stock of knowledge, …
and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications.

Research thus is a creative as much as a systematic endeavour, seeking to generate new knowledge and to foster the application of knowledge, both novel and pre-existing. No doubt, research is highly relevant for innovation, whether it is focused more on science or more on technology and its development. But where exactly does research fit in the innovation landscape?


In the innovation landscape I’ve sketched earlier, research the defining element of the second quadrant. This terrain within the landscape is framed by known problems and novel ideas.

Dealing with known problems means that society at large has encountered these challenges a while ago. Society had the time to establish institutions (i.e., the traditions, customs, practices, and codes of conduct a society employs to organise its affairs), thus defining the rules of the game for dealing with those challenges and problems. For research, such institutions include the scientific method itself, the patent system to protect the intellectual property of the researchers, scholarships as a way to fund research, and even the educational system that provides the necessary skilled work force.

Within the generic framework defined by the institutions, a wide variety of organisations, each with their own dedicated structures and processes are engaged in research. Though there are many hybrid forms of research organisations, there are essentially three basic types. The Research & Development departments in large companies are set up to generate innovation that paves the way for new products; it is their job to create the next generation of “business as usual”. By contrast, research laboratories are less focused on the immediate economic interest of business. Rather, they address those needs of society that are entail higher risk and are less certain to master, especially in the area of basic science. Finally, universities tackle yet a different facet of the research quadrant: they are committed to provide the constant stream of well-trained researchers that is needed in the R&D departments and the laboratories.


Collectively, these organisations ensure and sustain innovation through research: they develop novel ideas and seek to apply them to solve known problems. Certainly, it is the resulting innovation, the novel idea for solving a problem, that is the purpose of research. But it is actually only the smaller part of the contribution that research provides in the innovation landscape and to society as a whole.

This might be counter-intuitive at first glance, but think about it: successful innovation through research comprises two elements, a novel idea and its application to solving a problem. In this strict sense, novel ideas without application do not constitute success. Think about Thomas Edison and his 10,000 ways that won’t work. Only 1 of the 10,000 was successful innovation: it created the light bulb that enlightened and electrified the world. But the other 9,999 were neither wasted time nor useless efforts.

On the contrary: as novel ideas, they all expanded the stock of knowledge. And they are useful in research and beyond.While some of those novel ideas might have been used to solve other problems at a later stage, their majority were of indirect use to future researchers: Edison’s work had demonstrated that further research in that specific area was a dead end. Such falsification of approaches, the “knowing what not to do” is essential to avoid future mis-investments. That is one of the reasons why the documentation of research results and the sharing of novel ideas is in the DNA of the scientific method.

Research generates innovation, that is its purpose and planned benefit. But research “produces” far more novel ideas than successful innovations. And all these novel ideas instantaneously became part of the known ideas, thus increasing the stock of ideas that are available to solve problems. This stock of ideas provides the building blocks as well as the tools for further innovation through business as usual. What might have seemed a failure in the first instance thus can become the stepping stone to further innovation.  Think about Post-It notes as one prominent example. Such collateral, unplanned benefits demonstrate an important and underestimated service that research delivers to society; this is the research way of pushing the boundary in the innovation landscape.


P.S. This is the first in a series of posts on pushing the boundaries in the innovation landscape. The next post will address the disruptive third quadrant, followed by business as usual in the first quadrant. The series will close on the wicked fourth quadrant.


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