Defying definition – Innovation expanded

“Innovation, as part of the core brand value, is something that really does set us apart” said a Volkswagen Director.  He may have missed how many other companies have innovation as a core value – including competitors, Cadillac who state “Innovation is a core value for Cadillac”.  Yet, despite the rhetoric, there have been no major changes to the internal combustion engine since the time of Henry Ford.

Barak Obama, follows a long line of politicians appealing for innovation with his speech: “If we want to win the future, America has to out-build, out-educate, out-innovate and out-hustle the rest of the world.” (Barack Obama, Feb. 2011). Yet, to date, there are no stand-out ideas delivered from Obamas time in office.

If innovation is expounded on by heads of companies and heads of state, one might well ask what this all important term actually means.  And I did – to varied responses : “Something that’s better then what came before”, “Turning new ideas into action”, ‘Fresh thinking”, “Seeing gaps and filling them”, “Thinking outside the box”, “Finding new solutions to problems”, “Engaging the right side of the brain”, and “Taking ideas to the market place”.

Applying the definitions above mean we stretch the word across multiple types of change.  We use it for a new flavour of soft-drink, a fresh idea and stretch it out to apply to large-scale systems intervention.

But can we really use the same word for a hamster powered vacuum cleaner that we use for the technology that powered rockets to the moon or the invention of communism? And can we nod blithely as yet another executive or politician uses the term as a panacea to different issues?

Academics differentiate between different types of innovation (including: incremental, step-change, radical and systemic). But I’m certain that none of the executives or politicians using the word would be comfortable replacing ‘innovation’ in their speeches with anything that implied less than large-scale (and inspirational) change.

Innovation is often used to explain how we will address the challenges facing the planet.  If we are serious about innovating our way out of problems of resource scarcity, climate change and social inequity,  we need to reclaim the word ‘innovation’ and apply it against achieving real change.

To be aligned to their stated values, Cadillac and Ford would need to radically change transportation systems.   They may be able to learn from River Simple. Its networked governance structure, open-source design approach and hydrogen based engine is a far cry from traditional personal transport solutions. Perhaps, if these executives applied innovation in its truest sense, transport could move beyond  being a source of carbon and contributor to dangerous climate change and  become a source of clean water and social equity.

America does need to “out-innovate”.  The US is one of the biggest contributors to resource concerns – including carbon, water and precious metals. Yet it is lagging the progressive policies of countries as diverse as Denmark and Korea in investing in green infrastructure.

If innovation is a core value and the recipe for winning – lets win big. Lets redefine the word to drive valuable change.

Links –

Hamster Powered Vacuum Cleaner –

River Simple –



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