Innovation and technology: the challenge Reply

Guest blogger:

James_Fleck
 Professor James Fleck, Professor of Innovation Dynamics at The Open University Business School. 

At the beginning of the Innovation Masterclass, I proposed to run a challenge for examples of an innovation that does not involve technology.

Definition of innovation:

“Innovation is the practical implementation of a new idea or invention for intended economic impact.”

General points:

1. There is a distinction between innovation and simple change: essentially we are considering innovation as a business and economic category.

2. Involvement of any technology: existing or old – does not have to be new; simple or basic – does not have to be complex.

3. An innovation may well be based on a natural phenomenon, but it has to include an extra element to make it into a human idea or invention.

4. There is a distinction between innovation as we have been discussing (essentially a business and economic category) and artistic or cultural innovation.

5. Innovations in process look like the most promising candidates, although most modern processes do in fact depend on ICT (information and communication technologies).

6. Innovations in policy look promising, but until they are practically implemented, usually as processes with determinable outcomes, they are not really innovations in the business sense.

There were 21 submissions in total. The best answer won a bottle of champagne. More detailed observations are noted under each suggestion.

Comments on submissions:

1) The wheel

Well, this is surely the archetypical innovation and if a wheel is not technology, what is?

2) The abolition of slavery (disappearance of the feudal system)

This certainly represents a major societal change, and is more a combination of many other changes than a singular change. But would slavery have been possible without ships, weapons and other instruments of oppression? There is an interesting thesis about feudalism which suggests that it is a society that results from the invention of the stirrup (which enabled the technology of horse-based warfare to underpin the emergence of a class of horse owning overlords).

3) Gay marriage

Not sure that this is a new idea, and don’t think any economic impact was intended. It’s more of a cultural change. Also see general points 5 & 6 above.

4) A choral work, performed for money

An interesting one, but more of an artistic/cultural change. Also, unless purely voice, without any musical instrumental support, then technology certainly is involved (musical instruments are technology).

5) Organised religion

Not sure what the specific idea is that is being practically implemented; not sure what the intended economic impact is, and not sure that it is in any way new. This is more of a cultural change – see general point 5 above.

6) Innovation in dementia care (a “feelings-based” approach involving quality interactions instead of task completion)

Not sure what is new about this. Surely more a reversion to what historically has been the essence of good family-based care. Perhaps the industrialised “task completion” approach, dependent on the technology of time-keeping and efficient division of labour, was the innovation?

7) The introduction of “total football” by the Dutch in the 1974 World Cup (where each player shared a posting on the field)

An interesting one – an example perhaps of a process innovation (see general point 5 above). But what about the pitch and the stadium, the football, specialist boots, TV and all the other technologies that make the modern World Cup what it is? Also, sport perhaps is more part of the artistic and cultural domain in its essence as a game. And increasingly, modern innovations in sport are in fact based on technology (goal line technology for instance).

8) The behavioural management of safety

This is very cryptic and not sure what the key innovation is. Appropriate behaviour has always been an important ingredient in safety. In its modern manifestation, I think it does depend on technology, that of monitoring and recording as well as a range of training tools to impart correct safety behaviour (I am thinking here of the programmed instruction about computer work that I have to undergo as an academic).

9) A new technique in knitting transferred from grandmother to mother

But knitting needles are technology, albeit a very simple and basic one.

10) Having children (Adam and Eve)

Mmmm. An entirely natural process. No new ideas or inventions (well…) (In the robotics literature there is a joke about how human beings are the only robots made by unskilled labour).

11) In nature where mutations occur which result in increased longevity of that species

Another natural process. No new idea and no practical implementation. But once there is practical implementation for intended economic outcomes, then perhaps you do have an innovation. Artificial selection for breeding?

12) Free entry to museums about 10 years ago leading to a massive increase in visitors and attendant cultural benefits

A clear example of a policy innovation (see general point 6 above). Not sure how new this was as museums were always free when I was a boy. Also not clear what the economic impact has been.

13) Sigmund Freud

Not sure where the practical implementation is. And perhaps there is a distinction between factually based new ideas and imaginative new ideas? Clearly an artistic/cultural example (see general point 4 above).

14) Money

Another very interesting example. Originally money emerged as a universal barter commodity, such as salt. But the real innovation when money became money in the modern sense, was the invention of coinage with symbolic value indicated on its face. And this of course depended on the technologies of metallurgy and minting. Even with salt and other barter goods, some means of measuring or weighing the quantity of the goods was required.

15) “Kissing it better” innovation in child and health care

As with example 6 above, not sure there is anything new in this. This is rather a reversion to ancient family based approaches.

16) Fire

Is this in itself an innovation? The effective control and harnessing of fire surely is the basis for innovations, and these all constitute technologies such as design of hearths, furnaces, chimneys etc.

17) Change from counter-service to self-service in shopping

I think this does necessarily involve a range of technologies, from effective tagging systems for the goods purchased, scanning systems for the checkout points and the design of the checkouts themselves so they are easy to use by a range of customers.

18) Agile methodologies

A good example of a process innovation (see general point 5 above) but rather generic and difficult to consider in the abstract. And surely it intrinsically involves technology especially in its practical implementation? As I understand it, it is a software development methodology, and is software not a technology? Moreover, various other supporting software technologies are required for monitoring and managing the overall process.

19) Microcredit

An interesting example, but one which necessarily ultimately depends on all the technologies involved in the modern financial system, even though the front end might be a very low technology of local paper records.

20) The way in which we now queue in one line rather than many, thus avoiding choosing the wrong line

21) The post office queue from many lines to one, saving frustration

These two suggestions (20 & 21) both capture a key idea arising from the formal mathematics of queuing theory, namely that one queue feeding many servers is far more efficient than many queues each feeding their own server. In essence it requires no technology as it could be implemented in any situation although to be purist, usually various technologies are involved (barriers to direct the lines; checkout technology in the servers etc).

Nevertheless, this impressed me as the best example of an innovation that does not involve a technology, and so the two people proposing this example shared the bottle of champagne. (And very kindly, they offered me a glass as well!)

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