In a somewhat similar vein, I find it difficult to define "innovation" in a clear-cut manner. Like Justice Stewart, many of us may feel like we know it when we see it, but is it definable?
In thinking about this, I looked for where the word "innovation" originated. Much to my surprise, it is also grounded in the law:
"According to [Canadian historian Benoit] Godin, innovation is the most late-blooming incarnation of previously used terms like imitation and invention. When 'novation' first appeared in thirteenth century law texts as a term for renewing contracts, it wasn't a term for creation -- it referred to newness. In the particularly entrenched religious atmosphere of sixteenth and seventeeeth century Europe, doctrinal innovation was anathema. Some saw this newness as an affiliation with Puritanism, or worse -- popery. Godin cites an extreme case from 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, began publishing pamphlets advocating againt church officials as innovators, levying Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: 'My Sonne, feare though the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change' (cotation Godin's emphasis mine). In turn, the pot-stirring Puritan was accused of being the true 'innovator' and sentenced to a life in prison and worse -- a life without ears." -- Emma Green, Innovation: The History of a Buzzword, in The Atlantic (June 20, 2013)
Thankfully, innovation is no longer punished. But read any contemporary book or article on innovation, and the authors will provide their own unique definition, varying from the simplistic to the sophisticated:
"The academic literature on innovation and creativity is rich with subtle distinctions between innovations and inventions, between different modes of creativity: artistic, scientific, technological. I have deliberately chosen the broadest possible phrasing -- good ideas -- to suggest the cross-disciplinary vantage point I am trying to occupy." -- Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, p. 21 (2010)
"Incremental innovation is about significantly improving existing products, processes, or services. Disruptive or transformative innovation, on the other hand, is about creating a new or fundamentally different product or service that disrupts existing markets and displaces formerly dominant technologies." -- Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, p. 10 (2012)
One definition that has resonated with me lately, that builds upon Johnson's "good ideas," is as follows:
"Innovation is defined as something new that can be applied in a useful way. Unlike inventions that refer more directly to the creation of an idea or method, innovation refers to the use of the better idea or method. It builds on the notion of doing something different rather than just doing the same things better as we might consider in improvement planning." -- Lyn Sharratt & Gale Harild, Good to Great to Innovate: Recalculating the Route to Career Readiness, K-12+, p. xvi (2015)In reflecting on whether innovation is capable of being defined, I now wonder if the quest is deeper: if it should be definable. Do we undermine its purpose by trying to define it? Is it better to just "know it when I see it"?
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What do you think or wonder?