The Relativity of Innovation

relativityIncreasing innovation is something that many companies want to do to enhance and sustain competitiveness. In “Will the American Competitiveness Initiative Work?” I asked whether throwing money at the problem is the best approach.

I ask this question because most of the books and academic literature on innovation only consider the absolute aspects of innovation. For example, how do you come up with new ideas? Or bring disparate ideas together into new amalgams of ideas? How can you unite the right people to stimulate productive collaboration? How do you generate new patentable machines and methods? [I’m thinking about books like Kelley’s The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation , or the Harvard Business Review on Innovation.]

But innovation is relative to a person, a community, or a society – and the social context within which these people interact with one another. The concept of appropriate technology considers that the progress and advancement brought about by innovation might involve a simple, uncomplicated solution. With this in mind, here are the two genres that an innovation can follow:

  • Absolutely Innovative – A new idea, invention or product is implemented, possibly in a new social context or for a new purpose. Examples: iPod/iPhone, composite materials, social networking software, nanotechnology. The novelty of these innovations is clear – it’s new to everyone, but is possibly only useful to some.
  • Relatively Innovative – It might not be a new idea, invention, or product, but it is implemented in a new context or for a new purpose. Example: bringing clean water to an impoverished village. Is it absolutely innovative? No, because the technology for producing clean water is not new. But the way in which the technology is integrated into the new environment might yield great benefits to the local community, and thus be considered an earth-shattering innovation.

There are a few visionary researchers who are more sensitive to relative innovation – in particular, C.K. Prahalad’s The New Age of Innovation and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

A New American Competitiveness can be fueled by relative innovation. (One more day and I’ll post my two-pronged strategy.)

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