O Innovation, Where Art Thou?

Just a quick follow on post to my prior post on innovation.

My good friend, Department Chair, and colleague Eileen Fischer emailed me a great comment that I’m going to incorporate here.

She has a bone to pick with the way that the Conference Board measured innovation for its report. They measured innovation as proxied by two things. One was patents and the other was scientific journal articles, both measured per capita. There are many problems with both measures. Patenting in America and a few other places is out of control because people are making a lot of money on legal challenges (as witness the recent debacle that nearly shut down Research in Motion, and ended up making their legal aggressor plenty rich). The second measure, journal publications, seems to have a whole host of problems. Are we talking good quality journals? Only hard science journals? What do publications have to do with innovation, really? What to we mean by innovation then?

As I think about Eileen’s great points, it seems we are desperately in need of better measures of innovation.

And those improved measures need to start with better definitions of innovation. My friend Gerald Haman of Chicago’s SolutionPeople brainstorming company defines innovation as a practically applied idea or invention. That’s a solid start. We’re not just talking about ideas, but applied ideas, commercialized ideas.

I’m also thinking that we need to be much more open-minded about the kinds of innovation that matter now and that are going to matter in the future. And the kind of cultural systems—local, familial, regional, national, and global—that are going to support them.

Measuring patents, Nobel Prizes, and hard science journal publications smells to me like a smokestack economy. Is that all that we’re really after here? New products only? New flavors of potato chips and new squeezy things for our toothpaste containers? Or are we also looking for major changes in lifestyle, in thinking, in doing, experiencing. The kind of innovation that we should be looking for are innovations on a cultural level, as well as including a material goods and services component.

I think the kinds of creative thinking we see in the entertainment industry, in the software industry, in themed retail, and online in the so-called Web2.0 economy are highly significant. Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class sorts of innovation. Seen in that light, I’ve been studying innovators and innovation my entire research career and I think we’re seeing major changes across society in the way we “do” innovation.

What might be some good measures of cultural innovation to add to the list? Per capita percentages of bloggers, wiki-participants, and content adders? Percentage of tinkerers? Of fans? Amount of Do-It-Yourself stores in a neighborhood? Prevalence of basic HTML literacy in the population? Percentage of people who start their own small businesses? Percentage of people who had one or more entrepreneurial parents? Tax rates on small business and small business owners? Amount of general risk-taking propensity in the culture?

If we don’t come up with better measures and definitions, we’re not going to get what we really need.

Next week, I’m going to talk about one of the most innovative places on Earth: Burning Man. And I’m going to examine the controversial sell out that its organizers made this year, a sell out that a lot of good people fear will destroy much of what is good about it.

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