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Innovation S1E1: The one with innovation and invention

January 24, 2011

Innovation has been the buzz word in the industrial galleries for some time now. It has often been taken as a source of economic growth. Innovations have generated new products, new services, new businesses, and new jobs.

Going by etymology, one often fails to discriminate between an innovation and invention, both of them implying the same sense of “creation of something new”. The difference between the two though is vast.

Thus to have a crystal clear understanding of innovation and its difference from invention is something which is an essential for businesses.

Jan Fagerberg wrote in his 2004 article:
“An important distinction is normally made between invention and innovation. Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.”

Thus, when a need is identified and a product or service is developed to meet that need, you have an innovation. People talk about the “invention” of the lightbulb or the “invention” of the iPhone, when in fact neither Thomas Edison nor Steve Jobs were inventors. They both used existing technology in new ways with an eye toward a big market for the result. They were innovators.


So as a initial hypothesis, I will say,

• Innovation is not the same as invention.
• Innovation does not require invention.
• However, invention can contribute to innovation.

To prove the hypothesis let us pick up a few cases and analyze them,

One example is the iPod, which as a standalone product is really not very inventive. MP3 players had been around for several years before the iPod. While there may be unique hardware and software aspects to the device, the fundamental invention of having a handheld MP3 player was not at all new. What made the iPod truly innovative was its combination of aesthetic design, elegant ergonomics, and ease of use. Also, there was the creation of the iTunes software and website that enabled listeners to actually use their fancy iPod. It is the combination of all these elements that made the iPod truly innovative.

To cite another example it would come to you as a shock that IBM PC at its own time did not have any new inventions. The bigger surprise is that the IBM team had strict instructions to not invent anything new to complete the project in 18 months. The goal was to create a “home usable” product which was intutive and easy to use.

Considering an emerging economy example, Husk Power Systems ( a biomass based rural electrification company) used technology already in place to places where it was needed the most and hence was received as an innovative and accepted technology.

Thus to sum it up I would definitely say that Innovation and invention are not the same, invention in terms of set theory is a subset of innovation and a rather small one I would say.

Any thoughts on this are more than welcome….

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 1:58 am

    Pretty Cool Abhinav … Keep it up.

  2. Gaurav Bansal permalink
    January 25, 2011 5:45 am

    Hi Abhinav – Interesting topic i would say.I am the last person who should be commenting on this (no expert) but your blog got me excited and i read up a little.My view is quite the contrary :

    In my view,invention is about cretaing something new,from the scratch,which never existed,a new product,a new technology,a new process.Something radical.

    However,innovation could be about the marginal (or big) improvements on what already exists.One could be ‘innovative’ in his thought process.It’s a every day thing !

    The world however seems obsessed with ‘inventions'(may be because they would want to make a larger impact) than be ‘innovative’ in their thinking.

    To quote William Buxton “Too often the obsession is with ‘inventing’something totally unique, rather than extracting value from the creative understanding of what is already know ”

    He further says ” Rather than focusing on the invention of the ‘brand new’, one might better strive for creative insights on
    how to combine, develop and leverage Innovation is far more about prospecting, mining, refining and adding value than it is about pure invention.Too often, the obsession is with ‘inventing’
    something totally unique, rather than extracting value from the creative understanding of what is already known,what is already out there, but hidden, or not understood.”

    And i completely second his view 🙂

    To conclude,in my view,innovation should be considered a subset of invention and not the other way around.

  3. January 25, 2011 1:40 pm

    I think that you have some great thoughts here and it works for most things, but I’m curious how it relates to the age that we live in, the “information age.” Information can be considered means of creating both innovation and invention. For instance, if I create a way of analyzing information, is that not both innovation and invention if the way that I do it is novel?

    • January 25, 2011 1:59 pm

      Hey Trent,

      As you come from an IP background I will say that you would understand that an invention would be new scientific or technical idea(process or product), and the means of its embodiment or accomplishment. To be patentable, an invention must be novel, have utility, and be non-obvious.

      To be called an invention, an idea only needs to be proven as workable.

      But to be called an innovation, it must also be replicable at an economical cost, and must satisfy a specific need.

      Thus an innovation is using the same idea in a new market or a new idea in an existing market, I will elaborate more on this in one of my coming posts on Innovation dimensions.

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