Innovation has become a major buzzword of our time, often with almost mystical properties ascribed. Still innovation has different meanings to different people, and the underlying concepts remain largely fuzzy and unclear, as the term is used liberally, blending aspects of a mindset, a process, or something we produce.
I view innovation as the pursuit of intentional change through developing and implementing novel problem-solutions. The concept of novelty employs human creativity and ingenuity, while the concept of problem-solving focuses innovation on a human purpose. We direct our innovative endeavours to improve our lot, to make our lives safer, richer, and more convenient by fixing what’s broken and providing what’s missing.
Innovation can be big or small, tangible or abstract. Its outcomes range from the steam engine to the iPhone to the button-hole, from script to double-entry bookkeeping to the zero. And innovation affects our lives at many different scales: from an individual to a group to an entire society, from local to regional to global, from today to tomorrow to decades out.
We develop new technologies to reduce the production cost for established goods, to deliver new products with additional functionalities, and even to create entirely new classes of products or services. This technological dimension of innovation directly affects a company’s bottom line and its market position. And it can have far-reaching ramifications for overall employment, as the ongoing discussion about artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, and the future of work vividly demonstrates.
Against these technological and economic backdrops innovation affects us all: either fast and directly as consumers, or rather slowly and indirectly as participants in an economy and members of a society. It is through our individual decisions if and how we make use of innovative products and services that we collectively define their success and future trajectory; just consider the advent of social media as a very recent example. That’s why innovation is everybody’s business: it’s not confined to research labs or the corporate world. And in today’s globalised world, innovation is not restrained by national borders either.
Even though we intentionally direct innovation to solve our problems, its outcomes are by no means predetermined. Hence innovation is often perceived as a faceless force of change: we simply cannot foresee all its implications. Successful innovation causes the reallocation of critical ingredients, namely money, facilities, and people, including their knowledge, energy and attention. That creates an impression of innovation as a race fuelled by a competition over scarce resources.
These unintended consequences are the price we pay as we employ innovation as our force for change, our means to achieve the change we want. We just don’t get exactly what we ask for: sometimes we get more, and sometimes we get less. Either way, innovation breeds the need and opportunity for further innovation; and the resulting stream of novel problem-solutions drives societal progress. In itself, innovation is neither good nor bad. Rather, its properties are defined by our intentions as we release its transformative powers to shape our future.