What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Innovation’?

After reading a post about innovation, penned by my good friend Ryan, speaking about it in a podcast, and reading other variants of this same line of thinking, I did not imagine that I needed to add any more to the conversation. Not that I had tied up the entire affair with some stroke of my genius, rather that others had or will eventually say everything I could have said. Yet here I am, typing out a long-winded reply to a question that so many others have spent their time writing about, but I digress.

I will use a short discussion that occurred on Twitter between myself, Ryan Taylor (@thisisryanon), and Zac Cichy (@zcichy; as an aside, his last name proves to be a personal enigma—I have heard the correct pronunciation but fail to reproduce it) to (probably) bastardize what everyone said for my own means. At a far enough distance, I would argue that this discussion serves as a microcosm of the general discourse of technology focused writing, but again, I digress:

“[Innovation] to me, there’s too much stigma attached to its modern day definition. It says: ‘Whatever you do, its’s never enough.’ That's not cool” (@thisisryanon 2013-04-21 at 3:51).

“Iteration as a word describes states (parts), ‘innovation’ describes stages (wholes)” (@zcichy 2013-04-21 at 4:05).

“Agreed. However, if every part is iterative, how can the whole be innovative? Something pre-existing cannot also be new” (@thisisryanon 2013-04-21 at 4:08) [cite].

“One thing pre-existing cannot be new. Multiple pre-existing things when coalesced form new things when pushed” (@zcichy 2013-04-21 at 4:13).

“[N]ot to get too postmodern, but I fail to see ‘innovation’ as anything more than a value judgement in its application” (@trst_blog 2013-04-21 at 8:58).

”Things move from less complex to more complex. From less comprehensive to more comprehensive” (@zcichy 2013-04-21 at 20:59).

Out of this very brief excerpt from a longer conversation I can identify at least two possible meanings of ‘innovation’ other than my own. First, ‘innovation’ as a misnomer and second, as an emergent property born out of a multitude complex interactions. While I think there is some cause to link all of these ideas together, I will treat them separately for the time being.

Speaking first to Mr. Taylor's definition. From what I could gather, he would argue that when the term ‘innovation’ is used it commonly is meant to mean iteration, rather than ‘innovation’ per se. By that he means people generally assume that in order to be innovative, whatever we are talking about needs another small improvement, iteration, gimmick, etc. The danger in this line of reasoning lies within the never ending dissatisfaction from the current state of technology. One could always say, “it could be better if…” and if the common understanding of ‘innovation’ reflects this discourse, then our technology is condemned to constantly chase its own dragon, to use a heroin reference.

During one of our last publicly aired conversations, we spoke briefly about chasing perfection. I reasoned that the platonic form of a smart phone could potentially be attained if only we could continue the iterative process indefinitely. (My calculus was poor, but I believe the mathematical limit on any development cycle would produce a perfect smartphone when the timeline reaches positive infinity.) ‘Innovation’ defined in this way brings with it a high price, namely, that we push any hopes of contentment with what we do have in the present off into an unforeseeable future.[1]

Mr. Cichy's idea of ‘innovation’ would appear to at first blush to follow along the lines of Ryan's, but it differs subtly. When Zac speaks of parts and wholes, I believe (again, this is conjecture) he is speaking a concept not unlike complex self organizing systems. ‘Innovation’ in this sense involves an untold number of small incremental acts, otherwise unrelated when appraised on their own. When a huge array of these smaller pieces come together (and whomever is doing the analysis has the good sense to step back and take a wider view) they can coalesce into entirely new entities, differentiated (in both form and scale) from their constituents.

Multiple improvements across a wide variety of sectors contributes to an increasingly fertile environment. Eventually, there will be a point when all of these pieces will thread together to create something entirely different. For example, the confluence of capacitative screen technology, higher density batteries and powerful yet efficient SoC's enabled a new breed of cellphone and tablets to enter the consumer space. These devices looked and operated differently than the current landscape of consumer technology; thus, the market took interest and so did the competition. Over a single short period those industries changed.[2]

Innovation defined like this works akin to natural selection. Random mutations or changes in the expressed features of individual members of a species, which may or may not be advantageous now, suddenly become the way forward when the context shifts. You might say that Apple was working on the right ideas at the perfect moment when both the technology was becoming available and the desires of the world suddenly shifted.

Unfortunately, what you cannot conclude is that the current circumstances were engineered or brought about by a single piece of the larger system. Like with natural selection, history just happened to work out in a way that benefited some and not others. Arguably, every other big tech company was plotting for the future of mobile computing but Apple was the only company that the complex confluence of factors favoured. In short it had the means, the physical technology was mature enough, information technology was becoming more lucrative in mobile contexts and the consumers were willing to buy into a new device class (this holds for both the iPhone and iPad).

Speaking now of my own opinion—not to say that I disagree with either of my peers’ accounts because that is simply not the case—which is slightly different still. Like in the tweet above, I would say that when the term ‘innovation’ is uttered, it used merely as a value judgement. Part of my argument follows a line similar to Ryan's in that invoking this term during conversation feels akin to endorsement or condemnation depending upon which context it's used (i.e., a pejorative). Not unlike saying that something is good because of some arbitrary feature or property, thus anything without it is bad.

Before you begin to think my logic is shallow (it probably is but hold on to that thought), I would take my claims a step further: by calling the use of ‘innovation’ a value judgement, I do not just mean an arbitrary appraisal of a thing based on personal preference, but also to say that the definition of the so called wider change is just as arbitrary. If we could, somehow, agree that ‘innovation’ might include features like, say, changing the future of an entire industry, then how could anyone confidently say so in the present without making some belief oriented judgement.

There is no presently available evidence that will indicate, conclusively, how the world will be tomorrow, let alone in five years. Keeping in mind theories about complex systems, who is to say that the world won't shift in the near future in such a way that black moths in the UK are more favourable than their lighter counterparts, like during the industrial revolution? You may have assumptions, predictions perhaps, but how confident are we in making Nostradamus-like predictions? Or even Kurzweilian ones? The only sensible arguments we can confidently make are about the past, not the present and certainly not the future.

Now in hindsight, things appear clearer. But again, the measure of ‘innovation’ will likely come down to some arbitrary line drawing. How long a time scale a person chooses to analyze, what other factors are they considering or ignoring, or what method they use to determine whether ‘innovation’ has or has not occurred are open questions. (Listening to Horace Dediu speak about the different types of analyst should arouse greater suspicion about those who brandy about the term ‘innovation’.) I do not mean to say that whomever makes the claims for ‘innovation’ may have a hidden agenda (although I am not arguing against it either), rather that there are questions we should be asking as the conversation progresses. Questions that should be asked of both of ourselves and our partners in dialogue.

I provide each of these opinions here because I think the breadth of possible definitions illuminates an interesting series of problems for anyone wishing to speak about technology. Alluding back to the title of this post, just what do we mean when we say innovation? Moreover, how do we speak to one another about ‘innovation’ in the technology space without relegating the concept to a mere buzz-word (a term just included for the sake of it; if you must, here's a definition)?

One way that ‘innovation’ becomes a buzzword is when those who use the term cannot agree on what exactly they are referencing. If we cannot agree on the basic premises of a concept, then how could a conversation ever get off the ground? If you remember when Douglas Bowman left Google over the committee chosen shade of blue, he did so because the entire conversation was happening at the lowest levels of consideration and no attention was paid to the larger concerns. Similar here, if the debate was to rage about what exactly does ‘innovation’ mean, then when will we get to more meaningful discussion?[3]

Despite the dangers this particular problem poses (one which I am actively contributing to here), the most common flavour of innovation-as-buzzword is likely to take root in a collective oversight. I would argue that it is far more likely that each person will assume that their counterpart(s) will understand ‘innovation’ in the same way that they do, when they do not. By doing so the definition of ‘innovation’ risks becoming vacuous because its implementation requires that it be able to accommodate all of its intended meaning and thus lose whatever shape it may have had. When anything mutates into “all things to all people” what is the most we can say of it? Perhaps, that it is a good thing or a bad thing (whatever that means), but certainly not a lot else.

For example, imagine that I am having breakfast with a friend, better yet, I am making breakfast for myself and a friend. Now, by some stroke of luck I happen to have the ability to make this morning’s eggs with an embedded camera that can sense when I am not looking directly at it and thus pauses whatever cool trickery I had also invested into this meal. (I realize this is a tongue-in-cheek reference but bear with me, I am mostly lucid here.) While I think this is a truly innovative breakfast, my friend may disagree and call my efforts gimmickry, or plain stupid.

In this example, when I use the term innovative to describe breakfast I am using a definition like, “new and never done before.” My friend, on the other hand, may be referencing a definition of ‘innovation’ that means something like, “innovation must change the way we interact in our daily lives.” Chances are that either of these definitions miss the mark, moreover, these are but two fairly polarized (whether rightly or wrongly) examples out of a much larger set of definitions.

While I would not be so bold as to claim that each person necessarily needs to understand fully the concepts that their counterpart is discussing to engage in dialogue, but I would say that it is helpful for everyone to be in the same ballpark to allow for a fruitful discussion. A subtle distinction but without it we run the risk of confusing a passionate argument founded on belief or value with a logical evidence-based argument.[4]

This particular fear of mine seems to be borne out in the tech press, the “blogosphere”, and even at your local Denny’s restaurant. Even without the intention of starting a heated argument, including any buzzwords like, say, ‘innovation’, ‘authentic’, or even ‘fanboy’ tends to do just that. My suggestion leans towards what I have argued thus far, that this tension is caused by an implicit cloak and dagger manoeuvre created by a conversational oversight. By attempting to engage in a specific discourse, we (myself included) use particular terminology which is perceived to be intellectually endearing but realize too late that it is instead divisive.

Without explicitly defining what is meant by ‘innovation’ and using it actively to describe a narrative we find our conversations rapidly devolving into mere name calling. As a test of this theory open up your RSS reader of choice. Now look at the headlines and identify a few buzzwords and substitute them for either praise or condemnation (e.g., “not innovative” with “stupid”). If after reading the article you cannot find any justification for not randomly substituting these words, then I offer my sincere condolences because you have probably just read a vapid piece of writing.[5]

I do not pretend to have any solutions to this issue. I do, however, hope that together we can begin to think about why ‘innovation’ is so foundational to this industry, despite the fact we don’t understand what it means.

(If you think you have any insight to add, bones to pick, or axes to grind, please, get in touch via Twitter or App.net.)

  1. This argument could potentially be spun out into a critique of consumer culture generally. By placing expectations in a future that is always just inches away, culturally, we leave ourselves open to missing what brings us fulfilment in the present. If this is the way you define innovation, then ask yourself some questions and be honest with yourself about the answers you give. What's so terrible about whatever device you have already? What is it that it keeps you from enjoying? If you're not happy now, is whatever you need just a few cycles away? Maybe, a couple more than that? ↩︎

  2. It is interesting to try and comprehend the push for more ‘innovation’ using this model as a lens. There is nothing to suggest that there will be another change quite like the one we just experienced at any time. Complex systems can be considered chaotic, no one controls exactly how all of the pieces line up, especially at what time. You may take educated guesses at when the technology should be sufficient to make x happen, but to estimate whether an entire industry will shift invites such a high margin of error that you could only safely make such a prediction with a career in the financial industry, perhaps. Looking again to history, suggesting that another big organizational shift will happen soon is no different than the predictions of what the 2000’s would bring from the people of the early twentieth century. We all know how those fared. ↩︎

  3. Personally, I am having a ball with this question. Unfortunately, if I am the only one engaged in it, moreover, the only one enjoying it, one could hardly call this a worthwhile conversation. ↩︎

  4. I must be entirely clear, I take no issue with value judgements or arguments from belief. I do not maintain the hierarchy of “fact” above all else, rather that each has their time and place. I only wish to make it clear which type of argument we are engaging in to save ourselves from the anguish of accidentally walking ourselves into a flamewar. ↩︎

  5. I offer no explicit safeguards of my own writing. I am guilty of the above, and will probably do so in the future. I am a mere human and thus entirely fallible. If you have concerns please, get in touch. ↩︎


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