Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: There’s more than one ‘I’ in innovation

Meg Ronson / September 25, 2017

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The Higher ED Blog: There’s more than one ‘I’ in innovation

Yes, we know how to spell it. We even know how to put it in a sentence (Sample sentence: Innovation is a crucial element of developing regional economies). But the meaning and power of the word is sometimes at risk of getting lost among the many buzzwords that make up the economic development lexicon.

In simplest terms, innovation is the phenomenon of newness, the creation of something original and different. But of course, what it actually means in our modern age is more nuanced than that.

On September 14th and 15th, the University of Waterloo played host to the Waterloo Innovation Summit, which every year attracts speakers and guests from around the globe to discuss innovation in practice. Big names like Tesla, Microsoft, Jigsaw, and Lululemon said their piece, as did promising start-ups like Voltera and Maluuba. Even burgeoning innovators from Communitech’s Velocity Garage had their moments in an exciting mid-Summit pitch competition. Tech companies, start-ups, entrepreneurs—these are the bread and butter of innovation as it is often discussed in the 21st century. But our understanding of innovation doesn’t—and shouldn’t—end there.

There’s more than one ‘I’ in innovation

The Archimedean ‘Eureka’ moment in the bath, and the apple clunking insight into Newton’s head, are classical tales of the innovative moment when the power of the human mind discovers something that changes the course of history. What get forgotten in these stories are the mentors, teachers, partners and friends who influenced and sometimes directly assisted these innovators in not only making these discoveries, but applying them. As much as we praise single innovators—and we should—for their contributions to their fields, recognizing the team effort of innovation allows us to foster environments to facilitate more. This can in turn generate vibrant, place-based innovation centres like incubators, accelerators, sector clusters, and sometimes whole innovation ecosystems.

Today’s innovation is a product of yesterday’s

We also now understand innovation as more of a process than an event. Innovation is always a result of many eurekas and falling apples, experienced by many people across time. We would not have the internet without the telephone, and we would not have the telephone without the microphone, and we would not have the microphone without electricity, and so on. Innovation requires a deep understanding of where we have been, and what we already have, to then be applied to what is—and what might be—possible.

Innovation solves problems

Though innovation happens over time and consists of the continuous improvement of past innovations, it is not enough to innovate just for the sake of it. Using your cellphone—a sophisticated amalgamation of countless innovative technologies—to cover the top of your beer when it starts to rain is an inventive and unexpected way to use an existing technology to solve an immediate problem. But we wouldn’t really call it innovative, as it is neither the most practical use of your cellphone, nor is it likely the optimal material to shield your beer from rain. Not to mention, drinking beer in the rain isn’t a very common or widespread pastime, so innovating a rain shield for beers isn’t much help to very many people, and probably shouldn’t be called truly innovative. That’s why identifying the problem to be solved is a crucial step when discussing innovation.

Innovation is a frame of mind

The daily grind of our jobs, especially in economic development, can get us bogged down in process, habit, and a business-as-usual mindset. Industry ‘best practices,’ while often helpful and well-meaning, can become pernicious if we blindly cling to them when better solutions are possible. That’s right: better than best is possible.

The secret to innovation is the willingness to question and test our current assumptions. This requires a near-constant examination of existing tools and structures, and asking ourselves “Is this is the best we can do?” This can be scary and difficult, but then, innovation isn’t always safe, and almost never easy. Having the courage to problem-solve through innovation is a frame of mind. In businesses, institutions, associations, we call this a ‘culture,’ and it springs from a top-down endorsement of and commitment to trying new things. Understanding what innovation is, and adopting it as the principal lens through which you view your environment, lies at the very heart of modern innovation.

The secret to generating innovation is recognising, acknowledging, and celebrating it

It is clear by now that innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It results from collisions of different things, people and ideas across time and place.

Today more than ever before, we are able to communicate our ideas and our stories very quickly to very many people, and this has greatly accelerated the pace of innovation. This is because one of the biggest drivers of innovation is inspiration! Innovation that goes unnoticed and unrecognised loses that crucial spark that begets further discovery. So whenever you find out something new and exciting, shout it out loud! You never know what else might come out of it.


About the author

Meg Ronson is the editor of Higher ED, Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a Master of Economic Development and Innovation from the University of Waterloo. She specializes in research, capacity-building, and education in the Canadian co-operative sector, small business succession, and co-operative conversions. She has worked in partnership with such institutions as the Ontario Co-operative Association and the Atkinson Foundation, and was a 2017 runner-up winner of the Velocity Start Problem Pitch Competition.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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