This essay was originally printed in Alberta Venture magazine, November 2012
Corporate boardrooms and MBA programs are breeding grounds for the professional cliché, and like the once-venerable cocker spaniel, the overuse of concepts like synergies and strategic plans eventually renders them an ugly imitation of their former selves. In the last few years the word innovation has been added to that dubious list. This is especially troubling because innovation in its true form is essential to economic progress. It would be a shame if it becomes so overused and so devoid of meaning that it gets tossed into the intellectual trash can of jargon.
There is more than one definition for the term innovation, but the definition I use is simple: “the application of an existing technology (or technologies) in a new and useful way.” It is distinct from invention, which is rare and should be applied only to the creation of something brand new, unlike anything seen before. The first phonograph, penicillin and the Internet are examples of inventions. True inventions tend to be (cliché alert!) total game-changers. Innovation is also distinct from design improvements, which are more common but still very valuable. Apple’s iPod was not an invention, nor was it really innovation, but rather the application of fantastic design to an existing device: the MP3 player.
A great example of innovation is the automobile. It was the application of two existing technologies, the four-wheeled carriage and the combustion engine, into something very useful. The 3M Post-it note is another example of innovation. Nothing was invented (both paper and adhesives had been around for years), but the two combined in a new and unique way has practically revolutionized the way modern offices operate.
Companies all want to be innovative, but getting there is more difficult than just announcing “We are an innovative company” in a mission statement. A chewing gum company, for example, may want to congratulate itself for its “innovative” new flavour, Wacky Watermelon. It may be creative and clever, and it could even gain them market share, but it’s not innovation.
Innovation – the true sort that combines existing technologies into something new and useful – is more difficult than coming up with a new flavour of gum. It requires the company or individual to really look at their world and what they’re doing in a completely different way. A good question to ask is: Can we do this more efficiently? Often design improvements come from this. But a great question to ask is: Is there an entirely new approach to doing this, using technologies in a completely different way? It’s from this second question that innovation usually flows.
The Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) technique in Alberta’s oil sands is a fantastic example of true innovation. Nothing was invented, but it’s clearly more than just a design improvement on the traditional mining technique. It’s an entirely different way of using existing technologies to extract bitumen.
Why should Alberta companies innovate? It may seem like an obvious question, but sometimes the most obvious questions are the ones never asked – or answered. I’d suggest there are at least three reasons that innovation is so critical in Alberta.
The first is that this is how economies progress. Without innovation (and certainly without invention), we’d still be chiselling on stone tablets and wrapping ourselves in animal hides. And innovation is not just about creating a bigger GDP or increasing quarterly profits, although it certainly can do this. Innovation is about improving our standard of living and freeing up time for more useful and interesting pursuits. Does anyone grieve the end of carbon paper? Who misses rotary dial phones?
The second reason that Albertans need to innovate is that the Chinese are doing it. So are the Swedes, the Dutch, the Brazilians, the Americans and everyone else. If our companies are not doing the hard work and looking at their activities in a different way, we will increasingly become irrelevant on the global stage. The economic wealth and prosperity will flow to those who are doing the innovation.
Finally, we need to innovate simply because we can. Canadians, and Albertans in particular, are among the most literate and educated people in the world. Being smart and bright are prerequisites for innovation. We’ve invested heavily in K-12 and post-secondary education in this province, so we have no excuse. Albertans are every bit as capable at innovating as anyone else on earth – so let’s roll up our sleeves and get busy! Our progress, prosperity, and competitive position in the world depend on it.