Defining innovation
June 5th, 2011
08:49 AM ET

Defining innovation

Editor's Note: John Kao, dubbed "Mr. Creativity" by The Economist, is the chairman for the institute of large scale innovation and author of Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovative Edge, Why it Matters and What We Can Do to Get it Back. This post is part of the ongoing "Global Innovation Showcase" by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By John Kao – Special to CNN

In my experience, if you work a room with 100 leaders of business and government, you are likely to get at least 50 different definitions of innovation. Stand up a panel of 10 innovation experts and you are likely to get at least a half dozen different perspectives.

Today, the word innovation is groaning under the weight of multiple meanings.

Does it refer to the ability of individuals to harness their creativity to generate value? Yes.

The prowess of certain companies such as Apple and Genentech? Yes.

The unique innovative abilities of certain societies – California, Singapore, Finland? Yes.

Is innovation about making money? Yes.

Is it about making the world a better place and harnessing the power of societal capabilities? Yes.

Is there such a thing as social innovation? Yes.

Is innovation, as President Obama stated in his 2011 State of the Union address. the key to winning the American future? Yes.

Is it about science and high tech? Yes.

Is it about design and psychology? Yes.

Does it have to do with people? Yes.

Systems? Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Tune In: Sunday 8pm ET/PT as Fareed Zakaria explores why innovation is the key to America's future on CNN.

The fact that innovation is being talked about a lot these days only adds to the confusion. My latest Google search for the word innovation returned 280 million hits. So it would seem that some clarity about what innovation actually is would be useful before we charge off on the white horse of innovation to save the world, make a fortune or follow our bliss.

The dictionary defines innovation as “creativity applied to some purpose to realize value.” I thought this was a pretty good definition when I was teaching at the Harvard Business School eons ago.

Read: Fareed Zakaria's TIME article, The Future of Innovation: Can America Keep Pace?

This is a corporate definition, on which in fact most of our commonly held concepts and theories about innovation are based. But as I’ve spent more time with public sector stakeholders for innovation – and I’ll have more to say about my work with national innovation czars in a forthcoming post – it has become obvious to me that societies are not in the business of creating new products or services that can be sold at a margin to realize growth in earnings per share through economies of scale. No. They are in the business of providing for the wellbeing of their citizens, assuring access to basic societal entitlements such as education and healthcare, pursuing the human adventure (think space travel) and constantly reinventing the value proposition that underlies the relationship between government and its citizens.

So the definition of innovation I have been using for a while that has seemed to stick is this: Innovation is the set of capabilities (individual, company, societal) that allows the continuous realization of a desired future by transforming what is possible into what is valuable for many.

Let me unpack this definition briefly. First, innovation is defined as a capability – a set of muscles that are cultivated through effort and investment. The ability to innovate is not a wish or a mood – it is as much a practice as playing jazz piano. No one can play on short notice unless they already know how to do it and have acquired the necessary musical skills, familiarity with music theory, history and more.

Check Out: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase" created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

Second, innovation is continuous – it’s not something you do once and then forget about.

Third and most importantly, innovation has to be about something – I call this "the desired future".

Ultimately it is relevant only insofar as it enables you to achieve what you want – whether as an individual (your heart’s desire), a company (the vision), or a country (national destiny). The desired future shapes the trajectory of innovation efforts, what I call "the innovation journey".

It is based on creativity (what we see as possible through imagination, intuition and gut feel), but needs to be translated into practical, valuable outcomes.

Finally, the notion of “for many” suggests that innovation must lead to some kind of pervasive change. Thomas Edison with his first light bulb in hand was an inventor; a light bulb deployed to change the lives of many is an innovation.

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Topics: Economy • Ideas • Innovation

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. RAJ

    Why Innovation ? is this inovation just an idea out of self-motive or passion to create something new out of fresh mind to help the society ? When the mind is passionate about inovationg something new or create something new out of heart and mind qualities, then that creativity out of humility helps many in this world. For example, Bill Gate innovation did help the whole world. In compare to such innovation there was innovation of Atom bomb theory to take revenge against Japan out of self-motive in which intelligent mind was given task to create somethng to punish others. In this complex world every nationa is trying to innovate with self motive to protect itself, to punish others, to gain selfishly by identifying with own country. If we invent solar energy, any energy saving device then such innovation help the society and free the society from slavery of oil dependence. If we innovate something to reduce over all polution that kind of innovation comes from naturally passionate mind and heart to help others. Such creators, such innovator have only one quality, there are cut off from the society, cut off from psychological time. They enjoy in there creativity, sicientifically remaining with the fact of subject and bring result. This kind of innovation is not out of fear but from sensitive highly evolved intelligence. USA did invent drone missle out of fear of security and to punishing enemy, with self-motive and in reaction to such innovation China will create new design, new product to defend itself. We got to get out of such innovative competition to destruct others and encourage creation in youngsters which can help the society by its utility value, by money saving, by providing extra comforts. Goverment should provide more incentives for such socially beneficial innovative ideas. Encourage business community or Bank to provide loan for such research. Once good idea is innovated then that person should benefits a lot but at the same time whole society will also get its value benefits.

    June 5, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    "The dictionary defines innovation as “creativity applied to some purpose to realize value.”
    In my eyes it is the definition of the word out of economic point of view, a quasi end-product of an invention.
    The act of innovaton involves the process of trying and doing things new. Once it becomes a success, one talks about an invention that needs to be introduced to the general public.

    June 5, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Russ L Dalby

      A definition of interest is that of an "engineer". He/she is one who innovates. As a retired engineer I know some of the problems of doing a good job as an innovator.
      Innovation is not necessarily the main problem, too many people trying to capitalize from the fruits of our efforts may be the larger problem.

      June 13, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  3. antihacker101

    Through the changing times, we will not like the results that we have to choose to avoid a much dangerous result.
    we are in control.   that means sacrafise.,....

    As you may see money problems and people agreeing and disagreeing, i see an opportunity for change.

    when it comes to the econony(assuming i understand the concept),  ill tell you my idealistic structure in hopes the proper people will help in the affect.

    First, ill catagorize people(assuming that its what its all about) into the concept the government has.  (poor, middle class and rich).

    poor people have problems
    middle class have problems
    rich have problems

    Ill start with the poor and rich.  
    i feel that the poor and young  is what the focus should be on.    they have the new ideas that will continue to help the flow of the economy
    The reason is cause PEOPLE are power.  Rich cant exist without poor and vise versa.

    The value of the dollar is agreed upon, not a given.  The rich love their money that they earned.
    The poor have new ideas but who cares. 
    The rich have new ideas and power that makes them more likely to happen.
    the poor are forced(by the current structure) to see new value in different experiences of life.  New ideas are ignored. 

    The rich are now at a level where they want to cherrish their earnings and keep growing. 

    In the meanwhile, the middle class should be more ballanced but seems to be losing its existance. 
      The middle class earned their rights, they earned their money.  they are less depressed and will continue to fight.  they have know how. 
      they also connect with rich and poor keeping it stable(when perfected). 

    the poor(also young) consist of people who have no ways of expressing their ideas in the current structure.
    It is easy to say the poor are lazy, but its like telling someone that a 2 year old is lazy when they just havnt been in the system long enough to know things.
    We all have our own ways of growing.   Money should never be the main influence.  This is where we forgot who we are.

    (where rich come in).  No one will listen to the little people cause it messes their systems. Others will see them as bad people cause of alcolholism(depression).
    Situations are created.  People find a place where they are confortable far from change(homeless and alcohol).  
      They dont know what options they have anymore.  they are lost.  The problem is that its only getting worse.  Its like the system is finding ways to drain eachother even more.

    The rich should find ways to help the little people at the bottom or face consequences from government control so eather the people win or the governement wins(must be both).
    not by force, but cause they want to.....
      We should bring eachother up and take risks and growth.  I get tired of seeing the media concentrate on the little people,
    but still finding ways to drain them.  We should fight for them and find ways that we all connect.  I love seeing kids in the news helping with news and weather casts.  that helps them grow.

    The poor should have influences to help them grow(drug test for money is a start:  a fair trade.   but dont limit to poor). This gives them them an incentive and solves a piece of the government's money situaiton everyone wins based on choices.

    Incentives may help eachother grow at all levels. 
    Give the little people something worth fighting for.  At the same time, the government should not be bogged down because of population change.  popupation change should be in the equations.

    If the poor and young, not giving up(good choices), they should eventually become middle class.  Find ways to encourage everyone to take that next step.  Sometimes interaceptions are needed.

    When the poor and young reach certain levels and faught with all they have(influenced by incentives), then again, they eventually may become middle class(when the system is perfect) which is why the middle class should be left alone as an accentive.
    This will give that extra push to get to a certain range depending on your life's structure.  This will be intertwined with giving new ideas a chance and how rich and poor work together. The money is there, just in the wrong structures.

    What the rich may have as an incentive is happy surroundings and less bogged and a way to hunt for new ideas to help them grow so they can in return help you grow.  Richness should not come from money.
    Poor have new ideas and no way to enhance them in the current structure of life. Sometimes(if not most of the time), the law prevents people from using their creative self. The structure itself(at this monent in time) may prevent people from even trying. What is more important, law that saves lives but stop growth, or laws that cost lives, but allow more creative mistakes to happen.

    If this concept gets put in the works, instead of sitting alone complaining that the given(money from government) isnt enough, We will be forced to
    fight for our rights and what is more important with angles of falling into new areas of incentives based on what we learn from each other.
    We will all become part of what pushes our most inner needs and givens as human traits. 

    In this process the depression(alone) will be converted to something constructive and bring people
    together which is one of the problems.   We learned to become apart from eachother.   We have learned to TAKE in all directions...
    We have something worth fighting for again.  To teach eachother how to GIVE and turn our way of living back around for the next generation.

    You tell me why something isnt possible, ill tell you why it is possible.  Dont think that this is based around my confort zone.  Its outside my own confort zone. 
    Im sure we can agree that change is fear. 

    Fighting will bring us closer together and one thing that will also make this fast and swift is that we must change our polaritys from TAKE to GIVE.
    learn to give to each other instead of ways to taking.  You will find that new resources may pop out from no where.

    Remember that the value of  the dollar is agreed upon.  That means that if the poor decides  that money isnt a value anymore, stores get robbed for food for survival,
    you cant blame police or the system, but must blame the rich for knowing that their hidden intents will bring this about.
    All that hard earned cash that billionaires have may sit into a bucket of broken trees with ink called a bank.  and the rich become poor again

    In order to save your own money, you must learn to give to the low levels(THE PEOPLE AT THE BOTTOM) cause we are as strong as our weakest link.

    I liked the ideas of rich challenging schools in math competitions and rewards for chess defeats as incentives.  This alone starts wakinging our creative selves deep within.

    depression will be replaced with fighting(human  traits) 
    complaining will be replaced with fighting(human traits).
    depression will be forgotten about and replaced.

    rich will also have new purposes and responsibilitys giving them a reason to have money and they have the know how to deal with new responsibilitys that give them value. 
    Take chances with the poor and find ways to use your money so it has a real value by improving eachother's lives. 
    make your surroundings better with people instead of bank accounts.

    This idea of rich helping the little people(as seeds)  will cause a circulation that allows new creativitys ways to grow into an ongoing changing system for the better.

    I thank bill gates for his new ideas that havnt been made yet, they helped him become who he is now(i am talking about future investments that dont involve money). 
    People will now have a purpose to live.
    i still remember my first 10mzh ibm in school that made me who i am today
    we all have a purpose.  We forget that purpose for a moment and now are living other people's ideas because of it....

    When it comes to the budget cuts,  we see pain and fear.  but maybe, just maybe, someone up there is listening to our ideas(poor, middle class and rich)
    and finding ways to bring them together and create new futures.  Everything worth something costs.

    The only limitations are our own.  Im not against the rich or big companys, im against those people who abuse their power and lose their way. 
    Im against the deception that jobs and money is the issue instead of "ways of living" allowing control for the rich that tend to take away from the little people.(consious or not)

    We need to find ways of working together(should be about people, not money). 
    The worst situation now because of the way government is set, will be that the poor will die away of starvation with any sudden change.

    Give me your ideas of how something wont work, and ill give you ways of making them happen.  

     I dont have muscle power, i dont have government power, i dont have science/religion, or professionalism
    but i do have something worth giving.  i am a thinker,   What are you?....  and how can you use yourself for the greater good of all and everyone.

    Remember:   We all need electricity these days.  Why pay big companys when instead the people should become part of companys that bring free electric so we can put our focus on new ideas of growth for eachother instead of worrying about it getting shut off....  Think about it..   less money needed for something we need anyways, The more the value of the dollar will reach.  and our human traits have a better chance of growth.
    At the same time, we must set an example for the rest of the world hoping to bring ideas to them instead of  fighting against each other bringing a circulation of wars.

    How do you expect the rest of the world to respond when our own values are distorted.

    Another idea is that history teaches us that freedom costs.  Now we are at the bottom of the people that need fighting for(poor and weak).
    You may depend on eachother some day. create those connections.
    To say that puting taxes on rich will make the value of gasoline go up is a cop out. 
    It is profit, not needed.  They will die anyways with money going to the family that later can abuse the system(talking about rich and their intents).
      We need to put the focus on each other instead of money so we can defend ourselves at every level,  Then and only then will the economy grow.  
    Quit making it about money.  make it about new ideas and moving forward... 

    If my plan isnt put in place(and it will be), Then future government can easily be hijacked.  Do we want this? 
    They(rich and powerful) have systems in place to manipulate our ideas using media,
    I seen them use our own machines to raise traffic that had influence on passing laws behind the schenes then wait to blame hackers so we dont even try to validate whats going on. our attention span used against us.
    Do we want this, or do we want to use people power.RICH(money) must seed the poor to raise new ideas
    middle class keep us going.(circulation here) kept alone or improved with the people at the center of the influence(not goverment structure).
    POOR(have IDEAS) no resources, waiting for hope or die waiting). If people at the top try to raise the ideas from the bottom, it may give hope that someone up there is listening and people at the bottom will have other layers of hope that will add to the positive influence that will drive the force of our existance.
    If not, Ideas may die, but we cant give up before trying..... This is what brought us who we are. Things change. We need to change with the times. Have hope in eachother(your hope may be the driving force)
    When disasters happen, We all share the burden. When someone profits somewhere, we all feel the influence.. What can you add to the pool of the driving force behind us all..
    we dont want to know that america is great, we want to FEEL that america is great
    that feeling is our future...

    June 5, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  4. Patricia

    Briefly– caught my teenage son watching your program last night. Pleasantly surprised.

    I am SO GLAD he has discovered your program.

    Earlier comment re VCR and innovation: Forgot we had one until a chipmunk visited ours last week. I knew one of my

    kitties was up to something. It all came together about 3 days later when my living room smelled and discovered

    the little guy too late stretched out inside the VCR compartment.

    I am a great fan. Thank you for enriching our minds and souls each week.


    June 6, 2011 at 12:58 am |
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