From Chapter 31 of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
In 2003, Wired magazine ranked “innovation” as the most important and overused word in America. Little did the magazine’s editors realize that they hadn’t seen anything yet!
There are times when it seems innovation is all that matters in the modern world. No matter how smoothly or poorly things are working, we’re told we have to innovate. Students are taught to be innovators. Businesses are informed they need to innovate or perish. Governments are wringing their metaphorical hands out of fear that they are not being innovative enough. Even artists and designers are being informed they have to innovate more, as if their previous creative efforts weren’t sufficient.
And yet, when pushed, few people are able to articulate what innovation actually is.
All too often, innovation is taken to mean change, or doing something differently. Yet, if the aim is to build a better future as fast as we can, this is a really bad idea. It’s akin to throwing out the map at the start of a journey, and prioritizing speed over direction.
Rather, just as a successful journey means moving in the right direction toward a specific goal, true innovation involves coming to grips with where you are heading and why, as well as any change that this entails along the way.
One of the most useful definitions of innovation I’ve found, and the one I use with my students, is the translation of creative ideas into products and processes which provide sufficient value to others that they are willing to invest in them. It’s a way of thinking about innovation that reflects the importance of creativity and change, but only when they lead to something that enables someone to achieve what’s important enough to them that they’re willing to invest their time, money, or effort in it.
It’s innovation like this—focused, targeted, purposeful change, rather than undisciplined creativity and undirected invention—that is driving some of the most transformative trends in technology today. Advances in computing and data processing, the emergence of machine learning systems and artificial intelligence, gene editing, personalized medicine, smart cities, and many other trends are all a direct result of our ability to harness our creativity and inventiveness in service of building a future we imagine is possible.
Of course, innovation is a double-edged sword, and for every advance we make, untold numbers of unintended consequences begin to ripple through society and out toward future generations. Yet, when we get it right, innovation is a powerful part of our future-building portfolio. It’s not the only one, though. The most successful innovations are those that fit into a bigger picture of how we imagine the future could be. And, increasingly, this is a picture that is guided and governed by the principles of design.