From Innovation to Outnovation?

new wordsI was asked to do a post on innovation for the Infosys Science Foundation blog. So here goes. I lament on the triteness of the term “innovation” and argue that we should add another term to our innovation lexicon, namely: “outnovation”! As if we didn’t have enough words already! But then wordplay is the only play some of us know.

Original article on the Infosys Blog can be found here, and the text of the piece is below:

Lexicological Innovation: Outnovation? 

Innovation is one of the most bandied about words in town these days. Indeed on a trip from India to Geneva sometime ago, I counted the number of times I encountered this trite term. And I counted all of 36 times! On big billboards in Delhi (on the way to the airport), inside the airport, in the inflight magazine, and again on billboards once I disembarked in Geneva.

Particularly paradoxical given that the term is meant to mark a newness, a freshness of sorts. And yet it has become so banal, that almost every corporate uses it in its tagline these days. Strangely enough, at least one definition of the term permits us to be lax with its usage to capture even the lowest hanging fruit in the creative matrix. Richard Nelson, an economist of some repute once defined it as anything that was new to the organisation in question. In his words, innovation could be said to comprise “the processes by which firms master and get into practice product designs and manufacturing processes that are new to them, whether or not they are new to the universe, or even to the nation.”

Which essentially means that even if I have not really thought of a truly new / creative idea, the fact that I have picked up an existing idea and implemented it for the first time within the four corners of my organization means that I count as innovative. Put another way, were I to copy an existing idea, I could still claim to be innovative. Voila!

So now that innovation has become a trite term, quo vadis? Particularly, for those that count themselves as truly creative? How should they define themselves? I propose that we add yet another moniker to our never-ending expansion of the innovation / creativity lexicon: namely “outnovation”. If all, including the ordinary are innovating, then the truly creative should be said to “outnovate”. In fact, a simple Google search revealed that a handful of organisations have used this term (albeit sparingly) to signal that they are not just marginally better than their competitors (by innovating), but are far superior by their ability to “outnovate”.

The term does have a nice ring to it. And the meaning is intuitively evident. To outnovate means to outsmart the regular innovator these days OR to signify an “out of the box” innovator, given that innovation is now mostly inside the box.

Curiously enough, the term innovation did not always have a positive hue to it. Prior to the 20th century, it was viewed with immense suspicion, as it denoted an undesirable novelty that challenged existing political and religious structures. So much so that Edmund Burke labelled the French Revolution as a “revolt of innovation”. More starkly, George Washington was reputed to have warned (on his deathbed): “Beware of innovation in politics.” A sentiment echoed by Noah Webster in his dictionary, in 1828, “It is often dangerous to innovate on the customs of a nation.”

It was Schumpeter who helped redeem this term from its pejorative past and place it on a positive pedestal. However, the Schumpeterian redemption also meant that the term came to be associated primarily with technological innovation and stripped of its earlier linkages with other kinds of newnesss in the social, political and cultural spheres.

Schumpeter lauded the creative destruction that came from innovation arguing that it was vital for transformative growth. And within no time, every corporation aspired towards this lofty goal.

Interestingly enough, while the fostering of innovation was seen as a laudable goal, the manner in which innovation was to be incentivised (particularly through legal instruments) was heavily contested. And remains so till this day. Our IP regimes today cater largely to a construct of formal innovation that is insular, individual inventor specific, largely incremental and thoroughly inefficient. Little wonder then that Henry Ford sardonically noted many years ago:

“I invented nothing new…I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work, and the discoveries of still other men who preceded them. Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the great forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.”

Were I to harp on about the sub-optimality of IP regimes in this day and age, I could write reams on end. So let’s hark back to the lexicological liturgy at hand. Now that innovation has become trite, can we move to outnovation? But what happens when the newly annointed “outnovate” also becomes fashionable enough to merit a wider set of claimants and consequently a lower filter for qualification.  Do we move to “out-outnovate” then? Or super-novate? Or better still, to uber-novate (given all the cool associations that Uber throws up these days, dodgy drivers and security lapses notwithstanding)?

Ah well. There’s only so much creativity one can muster up on any given day. Which brings me to why I did this piece in the first place. It is to commemorate an auspicious day that goes by the grandiose title of World IP Day. A day where we pause to reflect on the term innovation and what it has come to mean. Can we rescue it from its banality? Can we help “innovation” transcend its triteness through a lexicological switch to “out-novation”? This would leave us free to use the term innovation rather liberally to also include imitation (copying), as we do currently. But only imitation of the smart sort: what counts in the copyright context as “non literal” copying.

ps: image from here. 


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