In a recent post on his Radar blog, Tim O’Reilly asked “How do we measure innovation?”
The variety of ways that people interpret Tim’s question supports the notion that ‘innovation’ has truly jumped the shark and become a catch-all buzzword. It is now the tech/business equivalent of describing a rock band as ‘edgy’.
Science is the attempt to understand the natural world through repeatable experiments, while technology is the practical application of science to commerce or industry. Wikipedia suggests that innovation is “an invention leading to commercial or social reorganization”.
Alright, then — what are some of the many ways we can quantify innovation? Christian Gray suggests:
- buzz and profile
- impact and profits
- adoption rate
- ripple or trickle-down effect
- impact over lifespan
Bill Seitz cuts right to the chase, saying that it’s more important to ask why we care. If you type the word innovation more than once a day, you likely seek to:
- compare or rate companies and their products
- influence policy
- uncover demi-journalistic fodder
The last point sounds snarky, but it drives home Bill’s assertion that any metric — be it an index or comparison — is a filter on reality. The very notion of an innovation metric suggests that it will always support the outcome desired by its creator. This outcome is most frequently either the filing of patents… or the incessant and combative blather of tech tabloids.
In “The Myth of Crowd Sourcing”, Dan Woods has a few things to get off his chest about innovation:
Crowds don’t innovate — individuals do.
The notion of crowds creating solutions appeals to our desire to believe that working together we can do anything, but in terms of innovation it is just ridiculous.
There is no crowd in crowdsourcing. There are only virtuosos, usually uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field. Frequently, these innovators have been funded through failure after failure. From their fervent brains spring new ideas. The crowd has nothing to do with it. The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing.
Jimmy Wales says that the vast majority of articles on Wikipedia are the product of a motivated individual.
There is no crowd of open-source developers ready to attack every problem. In fact, most open-source projects are the product of one obsessed individual who wrote the software to meet his own needs.
What bugs me is that misplaced faith in the crowd is a blow to the image of the heroic inventor. We need to nurture and fund inventors and give them time to explore, play and fail. A false idea of the crowd reduces the motivation for this investment, with the supposition that companies can tap the minds of inventors on the cheap.
Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere. Perhaps we’re abusing the word innovation when we should be proudly calling ourselves inventors?
TL; DR: Innovation can only be measured in the past tense. There is no way to predict whether an invention will come to be seen as innovative — or forgotten without consequence.
Saying that you’re an innovator rings hollow. It’s like referring to yourself as an Expert, or the CEO of a solo start-up. Don’t feel badly, as we’ve been trained to think in these terms by an industry that exists to profit by predicting future ‘innovation’.
And so, dear reader… which side are you on? Innovating for TechCrunch, or heroically inventing the future? Let your dreams be judged by their legacy, not some dipshit pundocrats with high follower counts and a slow news day.