Innovation is not linear

You would think that everyone would know this by now.

You are wrong.

Frequently, policy makers, universities and technological supporting institutions erroneously describe innovation according to a linear model that assumes that innovation is applied science. It is assumed to be ‘linear[1]‘ because it is believed that there are a series of well-defined stages that innovations go through, starting with research (science), followed by development and then finally production and marketing. In this linear model scientific research is deemed to be the most important step as it is the first step in the process. Although there are some cases that have followed this route, they are in the minority.

A softer version of the linear process of innovation is where it is assumed that the knowledgeable people are in the academia or business support structures, and that the task of policy makers is to devise ways to transfer the knowledge flows from universities and supporting structures to businesses. The main perceived limitation is the inability of business people to learn by themselves or to absorb knowledge from the system around them.

In the real world, innovation is dynamic and it is complex. It sometimes starts with a clever idea by an entrepreneur about an unmet need in the market. At other times it starts with a customer complaining to a service technician. Often it starts with a problem or obstacles, and in a few cases it is the result of brainstorming. Wherever it starts, innovation is definitely not neat and tidy. In fact, it is quite chaotic.

But there are elements of the innovation process that may appear linear, like a product development process (product innovation). But this scarce and mainly happens in professionally run firms. For most of us, innovation is not a structured process.

Again, it is important to understand that innovation in a systemic context often arise due to the interaction between different social actors like enterprises, technical specialists, suppliers, customers and maybe the odd academic.

Notes:

[1] The ‘linear’ innovation process was first criticised by KLINE, S. & ROSENBURG, N. 1986.  An overview of innovation. In The positive sum strategy: harnessing technology for economic growth. Landau, R. & Rosenburg, N. (Eds.), Washington, DC: National Academies Press, pp. 275-305.


The difference between invention and innovation

This post is copied from a chapter in a book that I am working on about the fundamentals of innovation systems. I am responsible for the thematic area of innovation systems within the knowledge consultancy mesopartner that I am a partner of. If you want to stay abreast of the work I am doing on this topic then I urge you to subscribe to my blogsite so that you can receive an e-mail every time I add some content (click on the sign me up button on the top right).

We often find that development practitioners, business people and policy makers are not clear about the distinctions between innovation and invention.

A widely accepted distinction between invention and innovation is provided by Fagerberg et al. (2005:4). According to Fagerberg et al., invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process (first to the world), while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out in practice within a specific context (by, for instance, introducing a machine from another country into a local manufacturing process). Thus invention and innovation could be closely linked, although in most cases they are separated in time (sometimes decades or centuries), place and organisation. However, the fact that innovation typically emerges within a complex system is often overlooked. For instance, as Schumpeter (1964/1911) explained, the innovator who invented the steam engine still had to wait for others to develop the different aspects of the rail system before it could be commercially viable. The steam engine was initially invented in a completely different context, again illustrating how inventions are dependent on the context in which they arise.

While many innovations can be linked to well-funded research programmes, funding is not a pre-condition for innovation. In fact, in many cases a lack of resources could stimulate people to innovate. Firms usually innovate because they believe there is a commercial benefit to the effort and costs involved in innovating. This commercial benefit could be measured in terms of return on investment or profits, but it could also be about cost saving, resource optimisation, solving a recurring problem or responding to the demands of a customer. Often increased competition, changes in market structure or market demand, or changes in technological performance also affect the innovation process. However, innovation requires taking or at least managing risks. Therefore, firms with low capital or with tied up resources are less likely to innovate.

To turn an invention into an innovation, a firm typically needs to combine several different types of knowledge, capabilities, skills and resources from within the organisation and the external environment (Schumpeter, 1964/1911). The interaction between knowledge and learning will be discussed in more detail in the next section.

The willingness of an individual to tinker and explore better solutions is influenced in part by the organisational context of the innovator, but also by factors such as education, qualifications, meta-level factors such as culture, personal characteristics (such as patience, inquisitiveness or tolerance of failure) and the institutional environment. Other factors such as competitive pressure, problem pressure, or social and economic incentives also play a role. Locations with a more diverse economic and social make-up are more likely to be conducive to innovation, as actors interact with people with similar and different interests. The proximity of other actors and the density of interactions make imitation, cross-pollination of ideas, learning from others and the combination of different ideas into new products and services more viable (and less expensive). This feature could explain why urban areas are often hotbeds of innovation – there are more people with different ideas and perspectives that stimulates and often absorbs new innovations.

Why does this matter? Well, many countries (including South Africa) over emphasize “invention” (even when they say “innovation”). Many financial incentives, loans and support programmes prioritize novelty as opposed to absorption. Absorption is important for innovation, as it indicates how ready firms, industries or societies are to not only learn from their own mistakes (and success), but to also learn from the mistakes and the success of others.

Therefore innovation stimulation is about getting our developing countries ready and willing to absorb insights and ideas from others, as much as it is about getting our entrepreneurs to be creative.

As someone famous once said: “why re-invent the wheel?”. With our small budgets we are highly unlikely to out-invent our international peers on many of the topics that are now seen as “sexy” like climate technology etc.

Our priority should remain to get our entrepreneurs and enterprises to be innovative at product, process and business model level. Only once we improve our absorptive capacity will we be able to become inventive.

Sources:

FAGERBERG, J., MOWERY, D.C. & NELSON, R.R. 2005.  The Oxford handbook of innovation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

SCHUMPETER, J. 1964/1911.  Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung. Eine Untersuchung über Unternehmergewinn, Kapital, Kredit, Zins und den Konjunkturzyklus. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot.

Quick recap: what is an innovation system?

Before I continue with this series, it is necessary for me to refer you back to a post I wrote some time ago where I described what an innovation system is. For the full post, click here

For those to lazy to click on links I will quickly summary two key points.

Freeman (1987:1) defined an innovation system as “the network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import and diffuse new technologies.The emphasis is mainly on the dynamics, process and transformation of knowledge and learning into desired outputs within an adaptive and complex economic system.

So how does innovation systems work within regions or places? Well, it is often affected by issues such as trust, social and informal networks, formal relationships, common customers or common inputs and other factors. You will notice that it sounds very similar to the characteristics of a cluster in its early days. The main characteristic of a local or regional innovation system is that it is mainly focused on a specific geographic space and on the specific knowledge spill-overs that occur around certain firms, industries or institutions unique to that space.

For the rest of the post where I related innovation systems to the surrounding geographic environment click here.

In search of innovation in firms

Thank you for your concerned messages about my recent whereabouts.

In the last few weeks I have involved in running a RALIS (Rapid Appraisal of Local Innovation Systems) with my colleague and friend John Lawson. This process is focused around three Institutes of Advanced Tooling in South Africa that are based in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng. We are looking at the innovation system around the tooling sector around these 3 centres and their key customers.

A literature search on innovation reveals that product, process and organisational innovation (a.k.a business model innovation) is commonly identified in the academic literature. Innovation does not take place in a vacuum, and a RALIS methodology allows us to better understand the determinants of innovative behaviour by firms. It is important to recognise that while tinkering about in a workshop is great fun, a lot of innovation in firms and between firms cost a lot of money and time, and the outcomes are uncertain. Therefore, we have to understand how and why firms innovate, and how the Institutes of Advanced Tooling can play a role to support innovative behaviour by firms in the South African Tooling sector.

Now many of you will know that my interest in the tooling sector goes back a long time. Firstly, the tooling sector is truly an important sector, as toolmakers make the machine tools and production equipment that is used by the manufacturing sector to produce just about everything that you see around you. Secondly, the tooling sector was one of the two sectors that I used to analyse market failures in a knowledge intensive business service market in for my PhD Thesis.

In the next few posts I will share some of the insights from this exciting process with you!

A tool used to make picture frames
A tool used to make picture frames
Tools and moulds
Tools and moulds