Innovation Is About One Thing and One Thing Only

A simple definition of “Innovation” is needed.

Posted Aug 13, 2018

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
Source: Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

Many people are writing about innovation. Yet, the more I read, the more confusing the term becomes.

Some have said an innovation is an idea. Others have said an idea isn’t an innovation until it has been applied or implemented into a new product, service, or method. Hmm, from my experience the hard part is coming up with the idea.

In an attempt at clarity, some have said that innovation is a new something—product, service, design, method, technology, process, solution, experience, outcome, and/or trend. Yeah, that makes it clear!

Then there are others who have defined innovation as one of the following: adding value to a product or service; adding value to a company, finding new markets; moving toward the future; having a different viewpoint; or addressing challenges.

In my opinion this last one “addressing challenges” comes closest to a correct definition. So, let’s look at an actual dictionary definition. Here’s what offers:

innovate [in-uh-veyt] verb (used without object), innovated, innovating.

From the Latin innovatus, past participle of innovare: to renew or alter.

* to introduce something new; make changes in anything established.

innovation [in-uh-vey-shuhn] noun

 * something new or different introduced.

 * the act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t care for this definition either, and that’s simply because I feel it should include a reason for wanting to introduce something new. Why are you introducing something new? What purpose does it serve? So, what could the reason be? If we look at the great scientific and technological advancements in history, the answer becomes obvious.

When we think of historical breakthrough innovation most people’s thoughts go to relatively recent inventions such as automobiles and airplanes, radio and television, telephones and personal computers all of which revolutionized the world, but even before the advent of electricity there were some amazing discoveries that radically improved human life. Ones we completely take for granted today.

Wikimedia Commons
examples of early glasses
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For example, take the invention of sanitation systems. The idea of separating fresh water from waste water (sewage), was so important for ending disease that it extended the average life span by decades. There have been two other major medical developments that massively ended the spread of disease, extended the human life span, and advanced the knowledge of medicine. Those are the discovery of disease-preventing vaccination and disease-fighting penicillin.

Do you wear glasses? If you’ve never needed glasses, then you can’t imagine how vulnerable a person is without the ability to see clearly. Most people will eventually need reading glasses, therefore nearly everyone will experience a degree of that vulnerability at some point in their life. The invention of wearable optical lenses in 13th century Italy has given billions of people the safety and confidence of clear sight.

A new plow design in the early 19th century transformed farming. Early plows did little more than scratch grooves into the earth, and had changed little since Roman times. The invention of the moldboard plow not only cut a furrow, but lifted up the soil and turned it. It mulched the debris from the previous year's crops, along with growing weeds, by flipping it upside down and creating a nutrient humus. This process extended the fertility of heavily used farmland. It was one of the key factors leading to the agricultural revolution that increased crop yields, provided better nutrition, and led to a surge in population growth.

Wikimedia Commons
examples of moldboard plows
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of cement as a construction material led to the building of nearly permanent weather-resistant structures—some of which have lasted for millennia. And, the lowly nail enabled the average man to build safe homes to live in.

Then there are the cumulative inventions of written language, paper, and the printing press. These developments made it possible to record, transport, and share knowledge. More than anything, the ability to spread know-how has improved humanity.

And, let's not forget the wheel and axle, or the sailboat—both are innovations which have enabled man to transport himself, his products, and his culture around the world.

So what is innovation? It’s simple; innovation is the solving of problems.