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Defining Innovation

Greetings! Hans Henrik has very kindly invited me to join CPH127 as guest author today and I thought I would start by starting a dialogue on the topic of Innovation. Yesterday, I began my first project as a consultant in the area of business and design and my first client is a leading branding and interaction design studio in San Francisco. I've been asked to create a business strategy and accompanying metrics and timelines for it's successful execution. One of the key topics is Innovation. And there has been a lot of heated debate on the definition and usage of this now common word. For example, is it redundant to say innovative design? Isn't design by it's very nature inherently innovative? What about design innovation, we've seen it being used, but what does it mean?

Numerous design firms are beginning to position themselves as innovation consultants, here is an excerpt from IDEO's self description posted on Coroflot - "IDEO is an internationally recognized design and innovation consultancy". They teach you how be innovative, how to create a corporate culture to foster innovation, and one assumes, creativity - to join the thread of this conversation to Hans' recent posts on Creativity and corporate culture. Conventional wisdom has it that innovation is radical, paradigm shifting change yet BusinessWeek launches their new channel with an article that refers to "microinnovation". Does that mean incremental improvement? Or innovation in small doses?

The venerable Oxford dictionary defines innovation as

noun 1 the action or process of innovating. 2 a new method, idea, product, etc.

Slightly circular definition, number one, wouldn't you say? As for number two, an innovation is nothing more than a new method, idea or product. Yet, as you can see from the current usage and from other reading I'm sure, that the definition seems to imply much much more. What are your thoughts and definitions?  Here is a link to Hans' first post on the 4 types of Innovation.

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Niti, great comments. Ostensibly I would also see design as inherently innovative. I guess I'd qualify that by adding the word "good" [although that may seem inadequate in some way]. "Good" design is by definition innovation if there is an identifiable positive improvement.

An illustrative example might be a recent branding exercise I observed where the existng mediocre but functional logotype was replaced by a variant that is actually quite poor in terms of the visual communcation qualities it possesses. The result is a brand story that is inferior to the earlier itteration and in fact potentially destructive to the appeal of the organisation in certain cultural settings.

I guess my point might be that it is design - but is it innovation if we assume an inherent improvement in a given situation.

Posted by: Ian McArthur | Aug 3, 2005 1:12:32 PM

Welcome on board Niti! I think I speak for all of us when I say that I look forward to reading some very insight-full posts from you. Promise us to do your best :-)

Posted by: Jacob Bøtter | Aug 3, 2005 1:39:14 PM

I define creativity as the generation of something new. Innovation however is the practical application of creativity into something that has an impact.

Jim Canterucci

Posted by: Jim Canterucci | Aug 3, 2005 1:39:42 PM

This is one of my favorite topics! I have been using a simple, two-part definition for innovation; The introduction of something new that becomes widely adopted. Of course, with any definition there are other words that beg definition. "New" and "widely adopted" will be relative to a given situation.

The other aspect I find interesting in your post is the question of whether design IS innovation. For perspecive on this think of any other discipline. Is engineering innovation? Some engineering is innovative and some is not. Same with design. Some design is innovative and some is not. But there remains a lot of value in the engineering and design that is not innovative.

Posted by: Chris Conley | Aug 3, 2005 1:58:58 PM

Jacob, I promise to do my best :) I've been reading the new article on China's design resources at Core77 lately and have some thoughts that I hope to share soon.

Ian, your point is well taken but Chris brings up an interesting thought regarding the inherent value that engineering and design bring to the table regardless of whether innovation is involved.

Posted by: Niti Bhan | Aug 3, 2005 7:18:35 PM

Response to Jim Canterucci's comment above --
Based on your definition, it seems like the word "implementation" would work as substitute for "innovation."

I've worked with implementation departments before. I've never been amazed by their creative (or innovative) qualities. They always seem to be process driven and bent on killing variables and variations (which to me, make up a good bit of the creative process) so that results can be measured and procedures mapped out in a step-by-step process.

Am I getting your definition wrong?

Posted by: Don The Idea Guy | Aug 4, 2005 12:58:54 PM

Response to Don The Idea Guy implementation comment above --

Don's observation that implementation teams many times don't possess the creativity or innovation perspective of designers is a valid concern. However, when looking at the entire process, if we don't implement, we simply have a great idea. Creativity is involved of course, but innovation?

Isn't it also the responsibility of the designer to design all the way through to practical application - innovation? Perhaps the implementors are different people but to have innovation I think we need to take responsibility for the whole process.

Too long to post here but I expanded on my definition in an article on the Innovation Tools web site - http://www.innovationtools.com/Articles/ArticleDetails.asp?a=172

Posted by: Jim Canterucci | Aug 4, 2005 3:19:06 PM

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CPH127 is a sense-making initiative. We aim to create a open dialogue around the profound understanding of the leadership, organization and strategy of creative business functions with the aim to create new value (for customers, employers and stakeholders.

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