Is innovation = technological advances?

This is an early thought, I admit, and this attempt at writing it out only a rough draft. Over the past few days, bits of global news on innovation seemed to tickle the back of my mind as though about to form an incipient pattern.  Some refer to the United States National Innovation Act 2005, which I blogged on Core77 and CPH127 , add Fast Company’s earlier post regarding India’s tech lead in innovation with it’s attendent comments, and then I came across the Booz Allen Hamilton report on Innovation. Preferring to read this excellent analysis by Brent Edwards, apparently the report finds that there is no direct correlation between R&D spending and innovation. My thoughts, however, are one step beyond this point, and that is, to question the validity of the conventional assumption that technological advances equal innovation.

Would it not be more accurate to say instead that technological advances, such as those turned up by basic research, by math and science and engineering {all supported by the National Innovation Act} are only the first step towards innovation? After all, new materials, processes and technologies are invented. And invention and innovation are certainly not the same thing.

When I was a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Technology Management, my main task was to evaluate invention submissions for their commercial potential via licensing and tech transfer. The recommendations required significant research to estimate the future potential of the nascent technology or invention, and then and only would they be forwarded for patent applications by the OTM. One that I recall vividly was the development of a means of running a wire through a live laboratory mouse. Fascinating to be sure, but was it necessarily a commercially viable innovation that would generate licensing fees and future revenue?

Larry Keeley has often said that 90some% of all innovations fail. I do not doubt this fact, with respect to the research they may have done. But I do question whether a significant percentage of these innovations were technology driven, and whether, like some better known human transporters, they "fail" to become instant rockstars in the market like the iPod did? Are we expecting too much from technology? Larry has always pointed out that there is more to innovation that just technology. I’m not here to repeat concepts that have been better articulated than myself. What I do question however is the focus on the National Innovation Act, and more than that, the implicit assumptions that posts like Fast Company’s which compare the United States with India and China solely on the basis on technological advances. Luckily this is a personal blogpost and I’m not required to have a pithy point to make 🙂

But there’s something in this insistence on technology that bothers me, especially when presented as the tool for increasing a nation’s competitiveness or raising it’s capacity for innovation. Innovation is a new way of doing something, it is creative, ingenious, an improvement. Technology is but one part of it. You can have the greatest of advances, someone after all, did invent blogging, but if none of us embraced it to the extent that we did, wouldn’t it have died an ignominous death quietly somewhere? What are the real innovations – making it easier and easier to use, providing more and more techniques and tools to allow us to converse and connect and pontificate and be heard – i.e. the novel means by which we use the web to share our thoughts and ideas, not the original invention by itself.

And this is where I believe that the US will continue to retain it’s comparative advantage for some years to come. Yes, yes, the scientists are graying and the math skills of the nation are abysmal – but in sheer numbers, the US will never, and should never, reach a population of a billion. If there are strengths and weaknesses, focus on the strengths of the culture, not put that same amount of energy into shoring up the weaknesses. Rent a scientist, frankly, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco et al already are doing so. That’s the easy part. It is the ability to see the potential in the fruits of that research that currently sets the US apart as a nation and has contributed to it’s lead in this regard. It is the ‘crazy creatives’, the ‘garage tinkerers’, the ‘koo koo’ ones who flourish here, nurture them instead.

I speak from the heart, I have had the misfortune or opportunity to have had one of the most disjointed educational careers – in the colonial equivalent of a british public school complete with prefects and houses, in a small american school taught by risktakers willing to live in foreign countries, at the third best engineering college of a gazillion in Bangalore, in an Indian design school with Bauhaus principles – all of these permit me (I left a few out, the malaysian kolej and the women’s only college:) to say, imho, that the american education system, for all it’s perceived faults, when compared to the shining lights of asia that are blinding everyone’s eyes these days, permits freedom of thought. Teaches one how to question what one is taught, not just accept it as correct because Teacher or Sir said so. Allows electives in school. I could take Creative Writing, Computers, Calculus and Ceramics in my senior year together. [yes, I was a C student :] You cannot do that in the British system, at least the one I was in, or the Indian, where by age 14 you must choose or it is chosen for you, a stream of education – Arts (humanities), commerce or science.

Still I digress into details here, my point that I’m slowly reaching by this writing exercise is that there is a fundamental freedom to taste and touch and dabble in subjects. In four years of engineering at Bangalore University, in my final year I was permitted TWO electives. Compare that to your average American University. Sure, you can’t add two and two together, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t creative or innovative or lateral thinkers who are willing to take risks and question the status quo. Here, for now, I end this purely self indulgent writing exercise.

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2 Responses to Is innovation = technological advances?

  1. You are right, the term “innovation” is being used to represent “technological innovation,” but innovation can apply to any aspect of a business. Apple is a great model for how innovation has been applied in many different ways, in marketing (think different), in design (iPod, of course), in software services (iTunes), in customer sales and support (Apple stores, Genius Bars).

  2. Niti Bhan says:

    Brent,
    I agree wholeheartedly with you.
    Niti

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