The word innovation today is more or less part of our everyday language. This is perhaps no surprise if we consider that innovations are precisely what made the well-being and prosperity of our nation possible. What do we mean by innovation? We usually associate it with a new and unique creation that will be used by many people and that will meet one or several needs. The success of an innovation is evident if it is in demand and used by many. Often the innovation itself is linked to one person or a small team. One example is Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple. We also usually assume that innovations are made possible by technical advances. Up to this point most of us agree with that description. But to understand why a specific product succeeds, we need to do more than learn about the technical solution, we also need to understand the mechanisms that make the user choose this product over another one, and why he or she wants to use it. A discovery that ends up in a drawer because no one understands how to use it is not much of an innovation. In other words, a successful innovation is also based on a communicative design perspective – an attractive user-friendly interface between technology and people. We have become used to thinking of innovation in terms of products. But this is changing now that services are becoming an increasingly important aspect of the driving forces in society and as new types of service solutions are emerging that meet user needs better than before.
But the purpose of an innovation may also vary depending on the type of business/organisation in question. Companies include innovation in their business models and innovation can be the basis for their actual business concept. Scalability is an important component here. For a non-profit organisation innovation might have a different meaning. In this context it is about creating a solution to a challenge associated with the organisation’s goal of benefitting society in large, and not aimed at specific individuals. Scalability might be important but not essential. The term “social innovation” is usually used as a catch-all for this type of innovation. Simply put, social innovation has no predetermined financial return requirement. On the other hand, business innovation might have a social dimension. It should also be said that there are different opinions on whether social innovation should have a profit requirement or not. This gives us another way of looking at innovation.
If we look around us and try to understand what innovation means from a societal perspective, what we see is something a bit different. A service, product or social innovation may change our behaviour and, in doing so, affect the way innovations are created. One example is Skype. This is an innovation that has affected behaviours globally and has made the world a little smaller and probably more sustainable as well. We can, of course, speculate over the extent to which it has given rise to more innovations, but I would venture to say that there is no doubt it has done so. Behavioural innovations, if you like.
Another way of looking at innovation from a societal perspective is to understand the systems surrounding an innovation; which factors make us capable of, or prevent us from, turning good ideas into reality.
A third way to think about what innovation is in a societal perspective is to start from who we involve in an innovation process and how we go about it. Today we talk a lot about concepts like co-creation, the sharing economy and civil engagement. At a seminar I attended during the Smart City Expo in Barcelona, a question was raised about whether civil engagement is good for the innovation process or not. Initially there seemed to be uncertainty about what co-creation innovation means. Examples such as Airbnb and Wikipedia were used to illustrate the fact that actual usage is based on co-creation. But these are not necessarily good examples of a broad co-creation innovation process in the way they’re developed. This is changing now. Attempts to involve people in various ways are now forging ahead as the digital world is a natural part of how we move about, present, localise and integrate ourselves as individuals in our cities and workplaces. Using customers or users in the development of new products is a natural aspect of business models today. The gaming industry is perhaps one of the more obvious examples. Innovation becomes part of the process once a service or product has been launched, rather than being signed, sealed and delivered from the start. But to present challenges where the idea is for users to start an iteration process, is something else. Some attempts have been made without success. This is partly due to the fact that the participants could not see the upside of participating in the long term. Now, however, more digital platforms are emerging that allow companies or organisations to present challenges in society so that the participants can start to innovate from the outside.
One interesting aspect of this trend is that innovation processes have a different context and are more transparent than before, and perhaps also a have different focus and participants. The criteria for who participates may result in people joining in who have skills not encountered before. But it will also be a more global process, in particular when the challenges affect society as a whole. Examples are the challenges brought by refugee streams, the climate, isolation and healthcare. In these platforms there may be opportunities to test ideas, gather suggested challenges, find new partners, promote participation, help find solutions to problems, but also to spread knowledge of ways to take on the challenges. The list could go on and on. But to reiterate, if this is to gain traction, the participants must be able to see the upside of taking part. Social innovation is not just about innovations aimed at problems we are all eager to solve, but also about the way we generate innovation for a better society. Those who understand what is ingenious about this process realise that innovations are becoming part of our daily lives and that what we gain from participating will come later on in the process. Instead of having a few people doing the developing, we can all take part.
And who knows, perhaps someone has a better solution for a particular innovation to put under your Christmas tree, or perhaps your solution will end up under someone else’s tree.