When you think of the word ‘innovation’ what comes to your mind? Many will say Uber, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or even design thinking. Today, if you peer into the world of design, you will be bombarded with the word innovation. Innovation is becoming a permanent buzzword for the design industry, but is this really a good thing?
Having returned to design practice and observing from the inside-out for some time, I developed a few reflections on this elusive obsession and its relationship to design. But before I open up the debate, let’s quickly review what defines innovation:
the act of innovating; introduction of something new, in customs, rites, etc
a change effected by innovating; a change in customs; something new, and contrary to established customs, manners, or rites
- The action or process of innovating
- A new method, idea, product, etc
- – technological innovations designed to save energy
(What does ‘the process of innovating’ even mean? What does this look like? design?)
Wikipedia: (don’t snarl, it’s a good overview)
The term innovation derives from the Latin word innovatus, which is the noun form of innovare “to renew or change,” stemming from in—”into” + novus—”new”. Although the term is broadly used, innovation generally refers to the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention or renovation in that innovation generally signifies a substantial positive change compared to incremental changes.
Updated: 2016 version
Innovation is defined simply as a “new idea, device, or method”. However, innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. This is accomplished through more-effective products, processes, services, technologies, or business models that are readily available to markets, governments and society. The term “innovation” can be defined as something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society. It is related to, but not the same as, invention.
While a novel device is often described as an innovation, in economics, management science, and other fields of practice and analysis, innovation is generally considered to be the result of a process that brings together various novel ideas in a way that they affect society. In industrial economics, innovations are created and found empirically from services to meet the growing consumer demand.
Looking at the definitions, there was sound reason to advertise design thinking as a process (if not the process) that inspires innovation. The point and process of design thinking can be examined and exploited as ‘innovative’, or conducive to innovation, with its goal to create or significantly improve our world via close examination and understanding of users and society.
However, professionals (particularly clients seeking innovation through design) have ignored one significant problem: design thinking offers the potential for innovation and no substantial evidence to promise an innovative result. (To be fair, nothing can ever promise an innovative solution..)
So what does foster innovation? How do we know when we have created an innovative solution?
It appears to me that there exists three stages of general “improvement”- with and without the aid of a design approach:
1. Iteration: incremental evolution. an improvement of what is current. adds ease and efficiency
2. Innovation: incremental invention. a mutation of what exists. influences new transactions
3. Invention: disruption. the birth of a new species. radically redefines the structure and behaviour of society
There are many ways to define and identify various levels of improvement. I am more intrigued with the misty cloud that leads specifically to an innovation. I definitely align myself with the writings of Roberto Verganti (in this book Design Driven Innovation) and of Don Norman (in a joint paper titled, Incremental and Radical Innovation), when they identify that innovation can exist via a radical redefinition of meaning as well as via technology. Norman argues in his paper with Verganti that design may only offer incremental innovation- which is ironically what the definition of innovation implies.
The problem I find is that many clients approach designers using the term innovation and/or disruption, yet their expectation of improvement lies within the realms of invention. Unlike strategy, I don’t feel innovation is necessarily a competitive practice or goal, as we often discover innovations and new inventions through necessity or accident. It is often an act of discovery or re-imagination.
Design thinking may be one way to achieve innovation, but I fear many feel it is the only way. There are plenty of other intelligent and well read individuals who specialise in the theory of innovation. I have not devoted as much of my research to investigating this topic, but I do have some frank reflections on what it is. I have written about the unrealistic expectations that often surround design and design thinking. Part due to practitioners over-promising an innovative result, and part due to professionals looking at existing examples considered to be ‘innovative’ and learning that design was at its foundation. The promise of innovation shot design thinking to fame, no doubt, but I am fearful that it is redefining the definition of design in a way that may set ourselves up for failure.
Time to get real…
In a somewhat sick, masochistic twist I have referred to Bruce Nussbaum whose criticism of design thinking was accurate in one respect (everything else I kind of disagree with). In that infamous article, he highlights:
Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change.
As practitioners of design thinking in consultancies now acknowledge, the success rate for the process was low, very low.
Now, arguably, the success rate could also be perceived as very high- depending on what your benchmark and definition for ‘innovation’ is. This is quite important to point out, as unfortunately, many clients define innovation as the following:
- it disrupts my competitors, so that it propels my business ahead of the rest (whilst looking edgy, fresh, and smart in doing so)
- makes me lots of money
- can be produced in a matter of weeks, consistently, with little to no investment
- it’s tech-y
The one thing I have learned through my reading thus far on innovation is that at the point we identify a phenomenon as ‘innovative’ it appears as if spontaneous and out of the blue. What you often find is there was months, if not years, of research, prototyping, testing and design until it reached a point of ‘innovation’- a process that is actually incremental. It may appear true that industries are becoming disrupted in a more rapid way, but this is simply because we have instant and easier access to knowledge and/or materials than we did before. This merely informs us that we can speed up our pace of learning (and prototyping), but not of our innovations.
Sorry to break the bad news, but you have to spend a little more time at the drawing board-or a little more time educating the boardroom