Innovation v Invention – Not knowing how to change things when you work from a template

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As long as something is deemed sufficient, even if imperfect, no one will change it. Most people who work in technology or in any field that relies on innovation know that “innovation” is rarely, if ever, borne of someone expressing a specific need and someone else finding a way to meet that need. Sometimes innovation comes from hidden needs – the solving of a problem. Those who express their problem but don’t have ideas for or even an expectation of finding a solution are eventually met by those who have framed their problems with a solution in mind, developed solutions and introduced these solutions (or sometimes introduce solutions for problems that were somewhat hidden).

There are, of course, other innovations that are so novel, so innovative, that they create whole new things, new paradigms, new ways of seeing, perceiving, gathering information, organizing the world and living in that world. These tend to be things that are widely perceived as “crazy”, such as statements like “every home will have a personal computer by whatever year”. This seemed so outlandish, unnecessary and beyond the realm of possibility at the time. But there were visionaries who could see the potential for personal computing. We have seen the same with the smartphone, spearheaded by Apple, and other connected devices. We used to have crazy long-distance phone charges just to speak to someone who lived in the next county – and even though we all hated it, it is not like the majority of us tried to devise innovations to liberate ourselves. True innovation is often vision and a means to liberation (not just a run-of-the-mill solution to a problem). It anticipates a solution for many problems or features that we want to use long before we have the problem or want the features. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are written about ad nauseam as the forefathers of this sort of thing – mostly because they have been the front-men and are identifiable figures. We don’t often hear about the thinkers, geniuses, programmers who have come up with a lot of the inventions (tech oriented or not). But real innovation usually changes the world.

This is where I have a lot of problems with normal corporate life. Most companies have adopted “innovation” as a buzzword and concept – have tried to weave the idea into the corporate behaviors, running workshops on how to think about and teach approaches to “innovation”. But this is just not how it works.

In a somewhat related area, I recently read an article about why we don’t have better condoms. The most “revolutionary” development in the condom-making arena in the last 40 years has been synthetic latex condoms (since latex allergies are serious, and one wouldn’t want a latex allergy to prevent someone from having safer sex…). (Durex apparently used the word “revolutionary” in its marketing of a polyisoprene condom.) This is not innovation, at least not by its modern, accepted definition. Perhaps if we think of the literal definition of “innovation” – it is a bit like “to make new again/improve”, in which case, making small, incremental changes and improvements IS innovative. And polyisoprene is a variation of an existing product and existing material. True innovation, as the word is used, should be called “invention” – meaning that you will end up discovering something completely new and different from what anyone could have imagined. Some completely new material that totally changes the game.

Condoms have never been the most interesting topic for anyone – and because, until the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, condoms were seen primarily as a non-invasive birth control method (not something gay men were particularly into), they were not something anyone really needed to talk about. It was also not high atop anyone’s “let’s revolutionize this design/material” agenda, going back to the point that if something is sufficient, there is no real reason to fast-track change or seek to think about it in a new way. Indeed, at the height of the AIDS crisis, real innovation had to go into something more urgent – seeking viable, life-saving treatments for the disease itself. (It was not entirely clear early on, before the virus and its spread was fully understood, that condoms could act preventively.)

If you believe Danny Resnic, hard at work on his Origami condom, polyisoprene is a symptom of Americans’ failure of imagination when it comes to condoms. “When I first told people I was developing a new condom, they went, ‘Well, what could be different about a condom?’ ” he said. “They couldn’t imagine anything different, because there’s never been anything different.” Resnic thinks men have become desensitized by latex condoms. “They’ve come to accept that level of sensation as the maximum.” If they use condoms at all.”

I would argue that lack of invention in many areas comes down to this same lack of imagination. There seems to be no shortage of imagination in technology. And while changes occur frequently in areas like healthcare and pharmaceutical/medical device development, the regulatory and legal requirements, costs, lack of “sexy factor” and human factors considerations make this field much more difficult to operate in. Real change seems to occur only when there is a loud enough public outcry or public health emergency (the response to HIV/AIDS in the 80s – only because the gay community and its few supporters were vocal, organized and demanding enough or to some extent in response to Ebola, which some argue came belatedly). Some “imagination” is not as possible to implement – and certainly not as swiftly as one would desire – in healthcare and medtech.

When looking at something as “boring” to most as condoms, we have a working template, and very few people have the interest or imagination to change or improve it.

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