Why innovation is more than just invention...
People call them lightbulb moments. It’s an instructive metaphor.
The process of innovation is understood as a moment of inspiration. And that moment is represented by a piece of breakthrough technology (the bulb) associated with an infamous inventor (Edison, or the many people who ‘invented’ it before him – more about that later).
It’s a big idea about big ideas. And it’s playing no small part in holding us back.
As designers, and as people wanting to make change in the world, we need to move beyond this restrictive notion of innovation. Because when you spend your time as we do, tackling complex challenges across the globe, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the only kind of innovation we need.
In complex human systems, like health, energy, or employment, it’s rare for a new piece of technology or a sudden Eureka moment to be the catalyst that drives communities forward, creates lasting positive change or crashes through the gridlock of an intractable situation.
There are some factors we repeatedly see that too-often determine whether innovation programs fail or succeed. And whether you’re an aid agency working in Africa or a government agency making policy in Australia if you’re searching for ways to innovate for impact these lessons can help you succeed.
- Innovation is not just about new ideas
The first mistake in many innovation programs lies in thinking that innovation is solely about generating a new idea. Processes like hackathons have their place but the cult of the ‘heroic idea’ -- so stunningly simple that it sweeps all problems aside – means we rush past other possibilities that may be far more practical or effective.
Designing an innovation program solely around finding novelty means you are not thinking about how ideas will be implemented and whether they’ll lead to lasting, sustainable change.
This bias towards invention often results in technical solutions (apps, drones, blockchain) because technology can more easily display novelty. Human solutions may be a little less exciting and they are definitely more messy. They may have ‘been done before’ and so hold lesser appeal for those who fetishize the new.
But fast forward two years and that technical innovation may look a little different. Support has long evaporated, the app is crashing and the drones are gathering dust because no one knows how to fix them.
Let’s go back to Thomas Edison. He was by no means the first to have ‘invented' electric light, and not even the first to solve the problem of how to make a light that does not burn up in its own heat.
So why will every school child in perpetuity learn that Edison invented the lightbulb? Mainly because he had in place a means to rally funding and the networks required produce it and sell it.
I would argue this is good innovation – equal parts invention, action and building the partnerships needed to commercialise it.