A Conundrum – Is Innovation “Dead” or Does it Depend on What You Mean by “Innovation”

Is innovation dead? This question was recently posed in an Economist article and caused me to ponder the frame. Some would argue that “true” innovation means gigantic  ideas and inventions that totally change industry, society and economics. Such innovations are truly rare, like the invention of the telephone, the automobile, air travel. For example: communication technology; in the late 1800’s telegraphy totally changed the ability of companies to communicate, speeding decision making and, in turn, accelerating global economic growth. The opening of the Trans-Atlantic cable (1857 – 1866) changed the dynamics of stock markets virtually overnight when the time to exchange information between North America and Europe was reduced from weeks to hours. A generation later, the automobile replaced millions of horses and destroyed the buggy-whip and wagon businesses. Air travel displaced passenger railroad travel. These are truly disruptive innovations – innovations that totally changed entire industries nationally and globally.

So what is the state of innovation today? The Internet is probably the most recent truly radical innovation, but the internet is more than 40 years old counting its predecessor, the Arpanet. The Arpanet, underpinned by packet-switching technology, transferred its first message in 1969, from UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International).

Innovation, it could be argued, since the introduction and rapid expansion of the internet, has been “incremental” – such as search (Google), merchandising (Amazon), and social interactivity (Facebook). A case could be made that Big Innovation is “dead” or at least  moribund. Especially when it is considered that really BIG innovations come along very infrequently. My feeling is that, as I write this blog entry, there are some big innovations lurking in energy, life sciences and manufacturing; we’ll know ‘em when we see ‘em.

Until the next big innovation comes along, there will continue to be tons of incremental innovation, if we accept the basic-most definition  of innovation as any new approach to “renewing or changing.” Maybe this is too basic: in terms of business activity, I’d add “any new approach to renewing or changing that results in a dramatic change in revenue or profits.” In this regard, innovation is not at all dead or moribund but alive and healthy.

Given that at least one innovation web site has devoted the last two years to arguments over the definition of “innovation”, I fully expect some challenge to my thoughts and I encourage the dialogue.