Innovation nation

“Innovation” is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot.  If you’re recognized for your scientific achievements, you’re probably an innovator.  Same goes for business and technology.  Competitors on the reality TV show “Project Runway” are constantly told they must conjure up innovative fashion in order to win the mantle of “America’s next top designer.”  In the marketing and advertising industries, the firms that win awards are lauded for their innovation -- for their insight, creativity, originality, boldness. At the heart of all things innovative lays one question: What should be next?

Easy enough, maybe.  But that doesn’t go far enough.  With the term innovation being used so frequently to describe the cream of the crop in any given field of expertise, it seems like we might want to actually define it every now and again.  You know, in the interests of keeping it real.  So, what are people saying today about this ubiquitous yet nebulous word?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, to innovate is to: make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

Fair enough.  But that doesn’t get at the question of why.  To assert that something is new is to state the obvious -- nothing more

The websites of magazines like Fast Company and BusinessWeek each have “Innovation” pages where they collect stories about people, things, groups, and ideas that are all newsworthy in their own right.  They tell me that mountains of New York garbage are being repurposed and turned into a park, and that the ads on my Twitter page will soon be based on my personal preferences.  Of course, we could probably figure out what someone means by “innovative” simply by looking at the examples they provide to us.  But those sites don’t actually define innovation.  Forgive me for nitpicking, but I really am curious as to why the subject is all but universally avoided.

Let’s try one more place.

On the site of an event hosted by Fast Company last April, we’re finally getting somewhere.  The organizers describe their “Innovation Uncensored” conference as being comprised of: applied creativity, practical advice, inspiration, and thought leadership -- among other things.  They still don’t come right out and say what they mean, but the language they use drives at one elegant point: It’s not enough to be new, or even to be creative; you have to bring originality and vision together in a hands-on way in order to count as innovative.  You have to deliver something, and that something has to be better.

At least to me, the idea of excitement is common to all thoughts on innovation.  Maybe innovation is what evokes a visceral reaction from us -- what captivates us even if our interest in it can’t be rationally explained.  Maybe we just know it when we see it, and that’s the beauty of why it’s convincing.