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ThinkPlace designer Charlie Mere says innovation is about more than invention

Why innovation is more than just invention...

People call them lightbulb moments. It’s an instructive metaphor.

The process of innovation is understood as a moment of inspiration. And that moment is represented by a piece of breakthrough technology (the bulb) associated with an infamous inventor (Edison, or the many people who ‘invented’ it before him – more about that later).

It’s a big idea about big ideas. And it’s playing no small part in holding us back.

As designers, and as people wanting to make change in the world, we need to move beyond this restrictive notion of innovation. Because when you spend your time as we do, tackling complex challenges across the globe, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the only kind of innovation we need.

In complex human systems, like health, energy, or employment, it’s rare for a new piece of technology or a sudden Eureka moment to be the catalyst that drives communities forward, creates lasting positive change or crashes through the gridlock of an intractable situation.

There are some factors we repeatedly see that too-often determine whether innovation programs fail or succeed. And whether you’re an aid agency working in Africa or a government agency making policy in Australia if you’re searching for ways to innovate for impact these lessons can help you succeed.


  1. Innovation is not just about new ideas

The first mistake in many innovation programs lies in thinking that innovation is solely about generating a new idea. Processes like hackathons have their place but the cult of the ‘heroic idea’ -- so stunningly simple that it sweeps all problems aside – means we rush past other possibilities that may be far more practical or effective.

Designing an innovation program solely around finding novelty means you are not thinking about how ideas will be implemented and whether they’ll lead to lasting, sustainable change.

This bias towards invention often results in technical solutions (apps, drones, blockchain) because technology can more easily display novelty. Human solutions may be a little less exciting and they are definitely more messy. They may have ‘been done before’ and so hold lesser appeal for those who fetishize the new.

But fast forward two years and that technical innovation may look a little different. Support has long evaporated, the app is crashing and the drones are gathering dust because no one knows how to fix them.

Let’s go back to Thomas Edison. He was by no means the first to have ‘invented' electric light, and not even the first to solve the problem of how to make a light that does not burn up in its own heat.

So why will every school child in perpetuity learn that Edison invented the lightbulb? Mainly because he had in place a means to rally funding and the networks required produce it and sell it.

I would argue this is good innovation – equal parts invention, action and building the partnerships needed to commercialise it.

The story of Thomas Edison shows that innovation is about more than just invention
Thomas Edison was by no means the first to come up with an idea for an electric light, so why does every school child learn that Edison invented the lightbulb?
  1. Real innovation means new partnerships and opportunities.

At ThinkPlace we call it ‘convening power’ – the ability to identify the right people, get them in a room together and provide them with shared language and shared tools. With these in place we derive shared intent and then… we begin making something.

It is simultaneously as simple as it sounds and yet also the hardest thing you can attempt to do.

But it works. Half if not more of the value of convening people around an innovation program is in exploring the partnerships that can carry a potential intervention forward. Getting the right people involved in making something together is powerful in itself. And if they are making something that takes into account the needs of those who will use it the power is magnified further.

This means being selective about who is invited and creating the right environment for these partnerships to emerge. It means including additional assessment factors, like strength of partnerships and opportunity for implementation, into the assessment criteria of your innovation program.


  1. What’s new?

The bedrock of innovation is newness but that is a more malleable concept than many realise. An idea may not have worked in the past because it was tried in the wrong environment, at the wrong time or by the wrong people.

An election may have been looming. There may have been a recession, policy settings, public sentiment or other external factors affected what was actually a good idea. Maybe an important voice was inadvertently left out of the process.

Ask Humphry Davy, Warren de la Rue, Joseph Wilson Swan, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans how their light bulbs turned out. All were successful at invention and rather less successful at implementation and commercialisation. Edison iterated the invention to understand factors of commercialisation, figuring out how he would sell it effectively. The rest is history.


  1. Innovation in complex systems

Complex systems design teaches us to look at all the factors in play. No idea rises or falls independent of its context. Any intervention will be dropped into a system of interconnected human actors, motivations and relationships.

Are we considering the broader context and system at that point in time? For that partnership? With that version of that idea?

Silver bullets are rare in complex systems. It’s likely that the intervention that will work is actually a portfolio of interventions; interconnected and complementary in nature.

Solutions that seek to address the multiple points of failure or opportunity in the complex system are often overlooked. They require investment in people, capacity building, and administrative fixes that can seem banal in isolation but are powerful in aggregate.


  1. Who gets the credit?

Sometimes blockers to a desired outcome might be so painfully obvious as to lack excitement. People are reluctant to seek treatment for a disease because they cannot afford transport to the clinic? A bus-fare subsidy may save just as many lives as a miracle pill or shiny new app.

These interventions can go unloved because they are not flashy or ‘announceable’ and success indicators are grey within the broader complex system. They may involve spending significant time or resources mapping the complex system and then introducing a host of small changes at different points in that system.

And when it works… who gets credit for what? It’s less glamorous in many ways and less easy to assign winners and losers. Project management and contracts around such multi-faceted projects can be complex and risky.

But more often than not it is this approach that delivers meaningful, lasting change.

That’s why we focus not just on the invention but on partnerships that drive towards action, By getting the right people in the room from the outset you build shared intent, shared ownership and shared investment in the outcome. It’s this approach that we focus on with our work every day.


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