A word can be thrown around so often that its definition expands and becomes distorted. Innovation is one such word; it’s arguably been overused and misused to the point that it’s in danger of being rendered meaningless.
Truly innovative people and companies understand that innovation isn’t about constantly inventing new ideas and methodologies. It’s also about creating solutions that improve upon prior solutions and can be applied to the current needs of markets and populations. In many cases, these needs aren’t articulated. It’s the innovator who recognizes that a problem exists and that a solution is possible.
The greatest societal impact can be made by building on foundations created by other people. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but his innovative approach to manufacturing made him a titan of industry. In fact, he’s more synonymous with the automobile than Karl Benz, who is actually credited with patenting the first automobile for practical consumer use in 1886.
Invention + Solution = Innovation
Innovation isn’t about reinventing the wheel. It’s about adding spokes or smoothing an edge that can make the wheel roll better. There’s no concrete recipe for innovation. It’s the perfect storm of opportunity, timing, and brilliance. Our modern world is rife with innovations that help us learn, communicate, travel, and live longer, healthier lives.
One example of this is the smartphone. The mobile cellular phone was revolutionary. Yet, several generations later – and only after a lot of outside-the-box thinking and tinkering – the smartphone became the most-used device in the world. Would you be checking your flip-phone or car phone every five seconds? Probably not.
Two other examples of innovation trumping invention are the personal computer and the hybrid car. The personal computer moved closer to its potential after the creation of the dual core processor, which allows two programs to run simultaneously. It was a similar situation with the Model T, which altered the course of personal and commercial transportation. The last decade has seen impressive growth for environmentally-friendly vehicles due to significant improvements made in the hybrid car. In an industry that has been undermined by its own aversion to change, the hybrid could represent its greatest shift since the combustion engine was brought to market. Hybrid vehicles are in the process of solving the emissions and fuel issues created by the original invention of the combustion engine more than 100 years ago.
Determined innovators took the original blueprints of these inventions and turned them into tablets and laptops that power millions of everyday lives, and high-tech cars that will leave less of an environmental footprint. Innovation is the other side of the invention coin, and when it’s done right it inches society closer to a prosperous future.
Some of the greatest minds of our time are considered inventors when they were equal parts inventors and innovators, trying to enhance the world around them through existing technologies. Thomas Edison, Ada Lovelace, Galileo Galilei, and Nikola Tesla were as obsessed with innovation as they were with creation. Edison alone acquired over 1,000 patents, many of which innovated an array of existing products.
People are familiar with modern innovators like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Yet innovation comes in many different shapes and sizes. Joe Rospars, founder and CEO of Blue State Digital, might be the most underappreciated innovator of the 21st century. His company helped leverage the web and social media to get Barack Obama into office for his historic first term as U.S. president.
Prior to Rospars, using something like Twitter to speak to a politician’s constituents would have been considered silly and far-fetched; now it’s a necessity. Can you imagine a candidate getting elected to office without using social media? Taking something that was viewed by most as mindless and empty and turning it into a tool to sway elections is innovation at its finest.
Necessity’s Other Child
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is often labelled a savvy business leader, but he doesn’t get enough credit as an innovator. He took the stagnant retail sector with all its pitfalls and created a solution that would change not just an established industry, but also shift human behaviour. He wasn’t the first online retailer, but his innovative approach made online shopping accessible to everyone, no matter what they wanted to buy. Very few could have adapted something for evolving consumer needs as well as Bezos did with Amazon.
It takes brilliant minds to look at existing products, inventions, and systems and set out to improve them. Innovations made in medicine, science, transportation, and communication have solved many global issues while also laying the groundwork for future innovations that have the potential to propel the world even further into the future. If humans had stopped after they invented the wheel, we would still be living in caves and smashing rocks together to start fires.
Rob Shapiro | Contributing Writer