Innovation is Mostly Hindsight

I was asked yesterday to review part of a project proposal I'm involved in and—for the purposes of the funding application—highlight aspects which might qualify it as innovative. It's not an unusual ask, especially when the funding is meant to go to innovative projects, but it made me think about just how difficult it is to define innovation.

Reading through the proposal a number of different kinds of innovation seem apparent, and I think it's worth enumerating and thinking about them seperately:

1. Pure invention: This is characterised by a high degree of novelty or unexpectedness, though this might not be immediately apparent. Sometimes there are things we just haven't heard of before, and where we don't know if there's prior art. We can probably rid ourselves of quite a few of these simply by doing more research, and shifting the innovation into another category; some examples that remain might actually be bad ideas—novelty for its own sake, as it were. We should probably eliminate those too, unless we're working in a field of pure research. I'm not sure that this approach has much to offer those of us working in design contexts.

2. Extension:  Some of our innovations are really extensions of what's been done before—a kind of dialling up of key aspects of the work. This is often what passes for design iteration, though it's less than all that implies. Much of what passes for consumer product innovation Is just this kind of amplification: faster, thinner, more. Almost every project does at least some of this, 

3. Recontextualisation: Perhaps the most interesting kind of innovation is when something established (and sometimes mundane) in one context suddenly gets relocated into a new space and it just all makes sense. Think failed low-tack glue becoming Post-It-Notes. We're big fans of this over on the Visual Communication Masters course too—it's often what's happening when students are creating what we call new knowledge.

4. Synthesis: You can combine disparate elements and end up with a teasmade, or you can create the iPhone. When it works, when two conceptual frameworks overlay each other and tessellate perfectly, then true magic happens. Very hard to do well, and a quick read of The Design of Everyday Things is all you need to tell you why.

What's apparent from yesterday's exercise in innovation-spotting is just how hard it is to definitively call something innovative, except in hindsight. More often than not we're just pointing out areas with potential for design activity that fits one or more of our categories, and where we hope that innovation—with the application of design, commitment to iterative processes , and more than a little luck—might take hold and flourish.