Innovation is a recurring topic in the business world, and for good reason: it is the key to success in the digital age. Products and services that fail to evolve, satisfy new needs, and adapt to remain relevant in the market are destined to become obsolete. In this article, we will analyze innovation with a historical perspective to truly understand what it means and what the ingredients of innovation are. In the next article, we will address methods, techniques, and recipes to foster innovation in the projects you participate in.
To have everyone on the same page, the International Organization for Standardization (our beloved ISO) established a committee of experts in 2013 with the attractive and memorable name of “ISO/TC 279”, tasked with identifying, defining, and standardizing the terminology, tools, and methods that enable innovation. The work of this committee is reflected in ISO 56000, which has been publishing sections since 2019, with the long-awaited publication of 56007 focusing on ideation and opportunity management.
Although we all know the word, defining the meaning of innovation has been quite a headache. Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term in 1911, defining it in his second book as “the introduction of a new good, a new method of production, a new market, the conquest of a new source of raw materials, or other inputs, the opening of a new outlet for a new form of industrial organization”. Since then, great innovation theorists (Clayton Christensen, Eric von Hippel, Henry Chesbrough) and other talented minds from many disciplines have continued the reflection
“Innovation are the elements, activities, or processes, whether new or modified, that create or redistribute value.”
ISO 56000:2020 (adapted)
It’s not surprising to see so much effort dedicated to this topic. Innovation has been a key factor in the development of humanity throughout history, allowing humans to find ways to meet their basic needs and improve quality of life. In fact, it’s impossible to define innovation without mentioning a value proposition, and the concept of value is always linked to meeting people’s needs
It is important to note that the concept of “human needs” is highly complex. There are many factors to consider, such as culture, economy, education, andreligion. However, at its root, multiple common elements make us all share the same needs, even if we are not always aware of it.
Abraham Maslow theorized a hierarchy of human needs, in which he defined five levels of importance. The natural impulse of people is to first satisfy the most basic needs, such as food, safety, and shelter, before addressing higher needs, such as self-esteem and self-actualization.
This means that there are always areas for improvement, spaces for growth in the form of deficiencies or new needs. For example, if people feel their basic needs are not being met, they may be motivated to seek innovative solutions and change the status quo.
On the other hand, if basic needs are met, people may be more keen to seek fulfillment in higher needs, such as self-esteem and self-actualization. This can lead to innovation and change in areas such as education, art, and culture.
Creativity as a strategy for overcoming challenges
Creativity is a fundamental strategy of humanity when facing dificulties. The ability to think outside the box and imagine new and creative solutions to existing problems is key to technological advancement and process improvement.
Creativity allows for innovative solutions to be found even in situations of limitations, such as lack of resources or funding. It is precisely in these circumstances when creativity becomes a valuable tool for finding innovative and efficient alternatives. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2019 report on the future workforce, creativity and complex problem-solving will be key skills for workers in the near future.
More so, creativity is not limited only to generating new ideas, but is also necessary for their implementation and execution, which is something that is often forgotten. Innovations are only such when they are adopted, otherwise they remain just another attempt. And sometimes, that is where the biggest challenges lie.
Technology as an enabler of change
The third key ingredient for innovation is technology. And don’t just think about computers or digital devices, technology can be defined as the set of knowledge, techniques, skills, and processes used in the creation, design, production, and maintenance of products, services, and systems in order to meet human needs.
It can be tangible, such as tools and machinery, or intangible, such as software and algorithms. Technology has been a driving force in the evolution and development of humanity, and has had a significant impact on the way we live, work, communicate, and relate to the world around us.
From the invention of the wheel to the creation of the internet, technology provides a platform for the creation of new products and services and facilitates the exploration of new ideas and solutions to problems, revolutionizing the way we carry out everyday activities and enabling the creation of new industries and business opportunities.
Technology is a human product, and as such, is subject to the values, biases, and limitations of the humans who create it.
However, it is not a panacea. Technology is a human product and as such, is subject to the values, biases, and limitations of the humans who create it. Technologies can be developed and used in ways that do not satisfy human needs or even harm them. This often happens when excuses are sought to use technological advances instead of understanding opportunities to add value. Technology can be a critical enabler for innovation, but only when combined with other key factors and used in a responsible and ethical manner.
An example: the sewing machine
Until well into the 18th century, basic human needs such as food and shelter required maximum time and resources dedication, which did not allow progress on other fronts. For instance, in England in 1750, it took more than 60 hours of work to produce enough wheat to make a loaf of bread. Similarly, clothing was expensive, costly, and only available to the most privileged. For 80% of the British population, all their time was dedicated to being fed, clothed, and sheltered.
In 1764, the British inventor James Hargreaves created the spinning jenny, which allowed a worker to spin multiple threads at the same time, later improved by Edmund Cartwright with the power loom in 1779. However, it was still a manual and laborious process. In 1830, the French inventor Barthelemy Thimonnier invented the first sewing machine using needles and stitches to sew fabrics efficiently and accurately. Then, in 1846, the American inventor Elias Howe created a sewing machine that used a needle with an eye at the tip. But it was not until 1851, when Isaac Singer improved Howe’s sewing machine by adding a foot pedal and a worktable, that it became a commercial success and paved the way for mass production of clothing and other textile products.
This chain of innovations resulted in a significant breakthrough in the Industrial Revolution and changed the way textiles were produced. As a result, many professions related to textile production lost importance, while new skills, such as mechanics and process design, became more relevant. The paradigm shift of the Industrial Revolution altered the status quo and allowed for the development of new products and technologies.
Innovations that shift the paradigm
At the same time, the impact on humanity was dramatic. In a couple of generations the needs for food, clothing, and shelter went from requiring exclusive dedication to being reasonably affordable, freeing up time to attend to other needs. Mass production allowed for greater social mobility and the demand for knowledge and skills skyrocketed, although with little impact on discriminated groups.
This pattern repeats throughout history, starting from the Agricultural Revolution (approximately 10,000 BC-4000 BC) and the invention of writing to major social movements. Trade favored interaction between cultures and facilitated the emergence of guilds, which preserved specialized knowledge and expanded it.
The scientific revolution that began in the 16th century followed by the industrial revolution that exploded in the 19th century culminate in a sequence of great milestones that allowed societies to devote more time, energy, and resources to address the great needs that could have never been met before.
Never before has humanity had so many tools to fight against the injustices perpetuated by the interests of a few, starting with ensuring that every new innovation benefits the greatest diversity of people possible.
The great political and civil rights movements finally consolidate, enabled by new communication technologies. Never before has humanity had so many tools to fight against the injustices perpetuated by the interests of a few, starting with ensuring that every new innovation benefits the greatest diversity of people possible.
So how do we innovate?
The background hasn’t changed, for innovation to make sense it must be guided by people’s needs. The advantage we now have is that there is much more technology available and in continuous development. With the right dose of creativity and a responsible focus on the ethical implications of innovation, such as inclusion and sustainability, it will not be difficult for us to find needs to satisfy and technologies with which to enable change.
To make sense, innovation must be guided by real needs of real people.
In the next article “Recipes for innovation” we will see:
- Effective methods to facilitate innovative thinking.
- The basic recipes for innovation.
- Tips applicable to your daily life.
Meanwhile, reflect on your work paradigm and begin to consider how you would like to challenge it, because from the needs you discover will arise the inspiration to innovate.