What is innovation, really?

innovate [verb]

make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

In today’s fast-paced world, the question of innovation arises frequently whenever a tech company releases a new product. It’s discussed more often when that tech company is none other than Apple, once considered the “most innovative company” under the leadership of Steve Jobs.

When Apple announced the iPhone 5s, the argument for their lack of innovation and simply just releasing iterative products was at its strongest. The parallel was drawn between 1 Infinite Loop and their fiercest new competitor, Samsung. In the case of Samsung, it’s argued that their products seem more innovative because of all the new features packed into their latest devices. In other words, more is better – not an altogether incorrect assumption, but in terms of innovation… that remains to be understood.

This reasoning has got me thinking about what we consider “innovation” to mean in a world saturated by new products, a world where discourse is accelerated by the power of the World Wide Web, a world where the exponential increase in technology drives economies and mass-desire for the next big thing.

When Steve Jobs shepherded Apple out of their dark ages with the colourful iMac, he was regarded amongst the great businessmen and inventors of recent history – Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford. That original iMac brought something truly unexpected to the computing world: fun. It brought computers to life; its bold design decisions – made by the formidable designer Jony Ive – diverged from the existing conceptions of what computer design constituted. It was innovative in the field of industrial design by its very nature of being different, of being bold and new.

When John F. Kennedy chose to “go to the moon […] and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” thousands of NASA engineers embarked upon one of the most daring projects ever – to design a spacecraft that could safely land man on the moon, and fulfil our unending quest to explore, to go beyond, to seek new frontiers. They innovated in the field of science, discovering countless new things that have spilled-over into general use.

Nikola Tesla is perhaps history’s unluckiest innovator – under the shadow of Edison, his inventions went largely unseen or appreciated. For example, he’s the father of radio, yet many consider Guglielmo Marconi to be the actual inventor.

“I don’t care that they stole my idea . . I care that they don’t have any of their own.”
― Nikola Tesla

Yet Tesla persevered, because he was so invested in his ideas, so driven by his passion to create and discover and test new ideas, rather than be forced to succumb to the whim of the general public and abandon his work.

His name has inspired Elon Musk’s innovative attempts, namely Tesla Motors. His work there is changing the way we understand something intrinsic to modern living: the car. Musk is daring to make the electric motor car a viable and stylish alternative to the environmentally damaging internal-combustion engine vehicle. Musk isn’t worried about social convention; he’s going against it to create something new, something daring.

I could list a hundred more examples of innovators daring to change the world with significantly new ways of thinking, but I think you get the point: to innovate means to diverge from what is the established path, it’s to explore, to test, to try new things and go beyond what everyone else feels is the convention. And in doing so, it results in the creation of something meaningful. This doesn’t mean piling more features onto an existing product – that is actually iterative design, not innovative design.

The word “innovation” has become saturated over the years with our misconception of it meaning “more features.” It’s driven by our desire to want more, because more is supposedly better. It’s a mass-consumerist ideology that has permeated today’s societies. The true nature of innovation has been lost. It’s lucky that we have people like Elon Musk who still believe in its original intention.

Instead of focussing on wanting more, we should become more discerning about what it is we desire. Are more features packed into a product – many of which you probably won’t want to use more than once – really what you want? Or is it the attention to every facet of a product’s design, every little detail, whilst adding just those features that will add value and meaning to your interaction with the product, a more compelling alternative?

This is indeed a compelling age to be living in, as the very idea of what it means to innovate is being challenged by both bold ideas and new steps forward, and the marketing-driven feature-piling approach of many tech companies. Perhaps there will never be a final definition, as our desire to explore and create will constantly force this notion in new directions.

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One thought on “What is innovation, really?

  1. This is truly an inspirational post, thank you. I lead a team of 10 people, who often struggle to bring real innovation into their jobs, confusing it with iteration and believing, quite erroneously, that that is enough. This article highlights the difference succinctly and in a refreshingly thought-provoking manner. I will be sure to share with my team. Great job!

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