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What is Innovation?

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What is Innovation?

Marco Moreira

This post is part of the Innovation 101 series, a collection of essays exploring this topic from various perspectives

"Empowered by innovation. Innovating for a safer world. Innovation that excites". The term “innovation” has become so overused in our culture that it’s now devoid of any meaning. For those of us who actually are involved in innovation work (more on that later), it’s a real pain to try to have a conversation about this topic because often each person will have a different definition of innovation in his/her mind. It's our civic duty to fix this problem!  

Google "innovation" and this is what you get:

Not that great a definition to get everyone on the same page, right? Wikipedia is a little better:

Too fancy still. How about this definition of innovation:

"Innovation is the process or outcome of making things better than what they are today."

Pretty simple, right? Innovation is about making things better, period. That may sound even less objective than the dictionary definitions above, but let's look at how this simple definition can clarify some common misconceptions about innovation: 

  • First and foremost, advertising does not equal innovation. Saying that you have come up with something to make life better for people does not mean you actually did it! This point alone is the cause for 80% of the confusion around this topic nowadays.   
  • The point above is also why innovation is usually associated with startups. Most established companies can’t radically innovate due to bureaucracy, vested interest or just straight up incompetence. In a startup, you either make something that people want or you're out of business, pure and simple. 
  • Not all innovation is "better" for everyone. Yes there were recent innovations in the financial sector, but they made Wall St banks' profit margins "better" by offsetting the collateral risk onto the public and we all know how that story turned out.
  • Not all innovation is technological. Remember those nasty pictures of people with cancer plastered on cigarette boxes? Turns out, they work really well at encouraging people to quit smoking. No magical insights from physics of computer science there, just a smart experiment in public health.
  • Research is not innovation until it becomes a new product or service that improves people's lives. There's a lot of science in the world that is still just words on a scientific paper, for better or worse.
  • The good news is that it's easier than ever to make life better for millions of people thanks to the Internet, mobile, cloud services, etc. It's not easy to do so, but it's less hard than literally ever in the history of humanity. This point is the reason I feel so passionate about explaining this topic; we need as many innovators as we can possibly get to take a shot at improving the world.

So, as you can see, innovation is all around us; it's also routinely misunderstood. In the next posts in this series, we will explore the different types of innovation, how to break into innovation work and other angles on this  (formerly) mysterious topic. Stay tuned!