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The labyrinth of innovation

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The word "innovation" has maybe left its worst or best times behind - it depends on how you look at it. It has lost its buzzword status, i.e., its ability to impress simply when mentioned. In recent years it has been too frequently used by the business and advertising world in order to present a product, idea or process in a better light than others. The adjective "innovative" as it is often and happily used today is characterised mainly by one thing: its positive connotation. We meet this word frequently in our daily lives and it may even get on our nerves - after all anyone who ever had to do a project application may have been asked to demonstrate the innovation in their idea. Yet, innovation means renewal - after all that's what the word really means - and we interpret this as progress.
 

And why shouldn't we?

It could be that the people who are currently setting the pace in media, business, politics and advertising and therefore influence such connotations. It does not matter if they have been in their career for only a few years or are at the end of their professional life. All of them have seen a dramatic bandwidth of great innovation or at least have information about it and are benefiting from the fruits of these achievements in our most recent history. Even someone who is only 20 today can remember a time before Facebook and smartphones. Large parts of the population can remember what life was like without the internet and the opportunities it offers today. Put into this context, the positive charisma of the word "innovation" becomes even clearer. It is hardly surprising that technical developments which make our (working) life easier are met openly and positively. After all, we receive great benefits from them. However, it does take a certain time for the long term effects to manifest. Technical advancement can also have downsides - data monitoring, drones, weapons made in 3D printers for example. All of these are phenomenons which are not directly the fault of the innovation per se, but still a possible result.

Innovation receives a certain amount of criticism due to such developments - and due to the growing trend to work and live sustainably. Some yearn for the time before social media, a time when you did not feel the need to buy a new iPhone every year. 
 

Maybe not quite so far back

You don't have to go as far back as ancient times, which gave us the root "innovare" for the word innovation, although those who are opposed to innovation would have been right at home then. In his speech at the tribunal, Cicero asked the accused Piso if he needed reminding that he gave again into his self-indulgence.  "Te innovasti", were the carefully chosen words of the great speaker and he means that the accused - even worse than in the past - had been more "innovative" in his despicable actions.

New things did not have an easy time in ancient Rome as men like Cicero were adamant to maintain old traditions and eyed up any small change nervously. The expression for a move to attempt a political coup was "novis rebus studere", which literally means "striving after new things". The coup then came with Caesar and his successor Octavian, who is better known as Emperor Augustus and Cicero lost his head as a consequence. Rejecting innovation was the main reason for him to be removed in such an unpleasant manner.
 

Shush!

It wasn't only the people who were against innovation who were silenced - even though this was usually the last resort - but also those who demanded reform. Men like Galileo Galilei could tell you a thing or two about this. He was condemned to house arrest for his defence of a heliocentric system. The church was able to avoid a "whistle-blowing" scenario in the style of Edward Snowden. This comparison, even though a bit absurd, is not totally wrong. In Galilei's case it was not so much that the church did not think that he was wrong - it was not quite such a shocking, new discovery as you may think - but more that they were concerned with other things at the time and did not want to have to deal with "marketing" or even "re-branding" at this point.

The irreconcilability of the idea with theological principles was not the nub of the matter - the church reacted from a historical point of view totally normal and as anyone would do if their monopoly was under attack. After all, you really have to understand the church in the 17th century was a bit like a large corporation.  Some time later, Alexander Graham Bell had a similar experience to Galilei. Today, he is referred to as the inventor of the telephone - although he "only" brought the invention to market maturity. Bell was promptly rejected by the cable company Western Union, who was then the communication market leader.
 

What is innovation actually?

Bell is really more an innovator than an inventor if you follow the definition of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who introduced the term into economics in 1939. He also delivered a distinction between innovation and invention: Innovations can only be called thus if they are aimed at the market and successfully penetrate it. For this purpose the production processes have to be changed or combined in a new way.

The idea of progress and the positive approach to technical novelties which gained great advancement during the industrial revolution and is one of the main reasons that innovation is today no longer seen as something negative. Although back then no one really thought along the lines of Schumpeter's terminology. Today we consider innovation to be mainly this.
 

Creation

Today, we no longer think of innovation as something that just happens - like the anecdotal apple that fell on Newton's head or the accidental discovery of the microwave - but as something that is created deliberately. Not least in order to survive economically. This requires flexibility from companies to not only generate their own innovative ideas and then to implement and evaluate them but also to consider external innovation. A readiness to change their own direction is also part of the equation. Today's openness to innovation, the numerous competitions and presentation platforms allow new ideas, start-ups and kickstarter campaigns to grow like mushrooms. The pressure of the competition is naturally huge.

Although you no longer have to fear the Holy Inquisition, you still have to face the challenge to negotiate the maze of innovation. This applies to investors, consumers and naturally the innovators themselves, who have to fight to stand out and is the true challenge of our time.

Author

Amira Ben Saoud


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