Science of Innovation

At noon on 8th September 2011 anyone in need of advice on the subject of innovation need not to have looked far.  Within 0.2 seconds Google was able to find 326,000 results by searching for “Innovation Consultancy”.  Amazon listed 44,841 books on the subject of innovation.

Today 30th March 2015, Google now tracks 47,800,000 Innovation Consultancies in 0.35 seconds and Amazon has 71,478 innovation books on its virtual shelves.  A quick look through the links and titles reveals a huge diversity in vision and process promising a spectrum of technical and social outcomes.  The innovation landscape is growing fast and has many features.

In all this diversity there is not a strong sense fundamentally of what innovation actually is.  It is Swiss army knife of a concept, where some interpretation can be found to service a particular need or provide a universal panacea.  However, this absence of theoretical roots that establish a foundation for innovation can lead to a superficial and often opportunistic proliferation of approaches and ideas based generally on heuristic processes “proven” to work in the real world.  It would surely be the case with any of the sciences without their own theoretical foundations and conceptual models.

This points to a need to establish some theoretical foundations on which subsequent processes and practice of innovation can be built.  We must first develop an Innovation Science before translating these principles for application in the real world by Innovation Engineering.

Immediately we run into a serious difficulty.  The sciences stand more or less as distinct disciplines and islands of knowledge that are secure and mutually consistent within their strict practice of critical peer review.  Progress from these rather feudal roots into a more federated and integrated union of the human intellect is in its very early days and has a long way to go.  Innovation however is an amalgam of sciences, humanities and the arts.  A theoretical basis for innovation must involve concepts of value, information, cognition, creativity, transaction and so on.

What is required is no less than an integrated framework through which the primary domains of the sciences, the humanities and the arts can link their syntheses and analyses to provide the required theoretical foundations for an innovation discipline.

Such a venture is worthwhile because innovation is important.

Around two million years ago the move by Homo erectus from creating and using rough Oldowan stone tools to more sophisticated and symmetric Acheulean tools, could reasonably have been cited as a major innovation. The process and examples have continued ever since.

 Oldowan Tools  Acheulean Tools

Oldowan Tools:  1.7 to 2.4 million years ago

Acheulean Tools:  0.4 to 1.7 million years ago

As a concept, innovation goes back in economic thinking.  In the first few pages of his seminal publication An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith recounts a story of a boy employed to open and close a valve to enable a steam engine to operate.  This boy found that the same action could be achieved by means of a piece of string attaching the valve to another part of the machine.  Thus, “one of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour”.  Smith goes on to consider in detail links between innovation and wealth creation, interestingly without ever mentioning the word itself.

 Obama 25-01-11 P012511PS-0738President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address  in Washington, D.C., Jan. 25, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) Innovation has become a word much used by leaders to inspire and motivate the men and women they lead to undertake what is needed to improve their lives, their work and their society.  In his first State of the Nation address to the US congress on Jan 26th 2011[1], President Barack Obama made reference to innovation as the first of three cornerstones for the future economic prosperity of his nation (the other two being education and infrastructure).[1]

So innovation indeed has a long history which has left its traces in the progress that human civilisation has made since its origins. This offers the opportunity for an historical and even archaeological analysis, and it is through such a study of intellectual and social evolution, and where possible linking this to its biological equivalent, that innovation can be observed straddling the sciences and the humanities.  By uniting these disciplines we are able to explore the fundamental nature of innovation as a concept and as a process.

A next step will be to enquire on the definition of the word, and to propose one definition of sufficient capacity to enable us to proceed.


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