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Why we Love to Hate Innovation

Innovation is one of those divisive buzz-words that you either love, hate or love to hate. You can't get far nowadays without some mention of innovation whether it's on an advert on the side of a bus or used in the headline for a conference.

Businesses, governments & entrepreneurs are all convinced of the need for innovation and a recent study claims that 93% of executives are looking to it to drive growth (source: PwC).

The big four GAFA companies (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) are staunch advocates of innovation as a core element of their business. So it would be reasonable to expect the pace of innovation to have shown an increase over the last few decades.

However, not everyone agrees with that hypothesis. A study in the US by The Hamilton Project identified that whilst there have been many innovative advances in technology since 1970 the actual pace of innovation has slowed compared with previous decades.

They point to metrics that should increase in line with innovation such as overall wage growth, life expectancy and time spent on leisure activities. Many of these have not shown the dramatic increases you might expect.

Take life expectancy as an example and you can argue that the innovations in medicine and treatments in the first 50 years of the 20th Century resulted in a much more significant impact than we have seen in the last 50 years.

But there are two sides to this argument and people such as Bill Gates have been outspoken in their criticism of the notion that innovation has slowed. They use a different set of metrics such as the affordability of technology to the average person and the impact this can have. For example, before the introduction of mobile phones fishermen on the coast of India wasted between 7 and 24% of their catch by taking them to markets where demand was low. Once they were able to use mobile phones to determine the price in different markets they could take their fish to the ones with higher demand. In some areas this has resulted in a total elimination of wasted fish for the people making a living from them.

What this all highlights is that Innovation is a difficult subject to pin down. Many people struggle to provide a definition for what it is. The Oxford Dictionary definition for innovation is "the action or process of innovating". Well, that's cleared that up then…

It seems to be the thing that we all love to hate. We know we need to do it but we struggle to define what it is and to measure its impact.

Possibly the reason for this is that innovation is inherently risky. It involves doing something new, making something new or being something new. It takes us into uncharted territory and inevitably costs money and time with no guarantee of a result. And so it is often left to the more gung-ho amongst us. High-flying executives who want to make their mark on the world embrace innovation with all its fickleness. Entrepreneurs live off telling stories of how they threw caution to the wind to pursue an innovative idea. And bold policy makers are applauded for social change brought about by new ways of governing.

But what if there was a way to manage the risks associated with innovation in a way that was systematic and accessible to all of us? What if anyone from retailers to teachers to small business owners could learn the skills to innovate on a daily basis?

At The Imagination Factory we have tried many approaches to innovation but have settled on Human-Centred Design as our bedrock for managing the risks associated with new ideas. You can read about how Human-Centred Design influences our work here.

By Mark Hester