Opinion

Innovation isn’t only for unicorns, it’s for the rest of us donkeys too

After reading one too many think pieces on the topic, Andrew O’Keeffe realised being innovative is like being cool - if you have to convince someone you are, then you probably aren’t.

I just finished reading another innovation article with the secrets of ‘How to Innovate’.

Once again, held up as the holy grail of innovation are the unicorns, and the pantheon of tech demigods — Jobs, Gates, Musk et al.

How can I, a mere mortal, innovate when I couldn’t code my way out of a paper bag, let alone land rockets in the Pacific?

I don’t need to tell you that innovation is so hot right now. You know as well as I do, if we could all be a little more innovative, we’d be killing it like the BezosesZuckerbergs and Pages of this world.

If you believe the hype, we’re just one big idea away from the big time. From giving birth to a billion-dollar unicorn. From sprouting a horn that points us towards prosperity, and farting rainbows that lead us to piles of cash.

Innovation — what does it even mean?

Does anyone know what it really means to be innovative? And how do the rest of us donkeys (I generalise — I don’t really think you’re a donkey, but it makes a nice juxtaposition for the story) achieve this mythical status?

Director of the Technology and Innovation Centre at the University of Queensland, Mark Dodgson describes ‘innovation’ as an ‘aerosol word’ — as in, people spray it into the air, it smells lovely and yet you can’t grab hold of it.”

The Australian federal government tried on some innovation cologne with the National Innovation and Science Agenda or ‘Ideas Boom’ that when launched, included tax incentives for angel investors, funding for CSIRO data research, cyber security and biomed, and a commitment to teaching primary school students to code. (Not to be outdone, the federal opposition jumped on board the bandwagon too, with an ‘innovation vision to turn Silicon Valley into Kangaroo Valley’.)

But it didn’t inspire or connect with the general public.

The government was widely criticised, with the Financial Review noting that in the polls “the government took an election ‘shellacking’ because its objective to drive a more entrepreneurial society did not resonate with everyday Australians.”

The idea of the Ideas Boom was lost on most of us. It didn’t feel like it was for us. It made us feel a bit inadequate. Less like unicorns, more like donkeys.

What went wrong? The intent was right, but the narrative was off.

We need to change the narrative around innovation. Here’s why:

The vast majority of us aren’t tech geniuses and entrepreneurs.

The contemporary perception of innovation has been hijacked by the high-tech end of town, and the prevailing narrative is too narrow to be inclusive.

It’s all VR headsets, start-ups and Silicon Valley.

It leaves the rest of us feeling like we’re on the outside of innovation. But in actual fact, we’ve always innovated, always tinkered, always invented, always looked for new methods and better ways to do what we do.

Whether we’re winning or failing, we’re all innovators, it’s just not part of our job title.

Innovation is not the goal.

No-one ever said ‘when I grow up I want to be innovative’. No one sets out to be ‘innovative’. Striving to be innovative is not the point.

The concept of innovation as an activity is too vague and abstract to be practically applied for most of us, no matter how many lists we read of what innovators do before breakfast and why we suck because we don’t get up before dawn.

But within the context of what we do and what we know — and with the right conditions for ideas to grow — innovation is a product of our own area of expertise, and trying to do the things that we do, better.

Innovation as theatre.

There is a term for the act of looking innovative — innovation theatre — cynically employed by the start-up and entrepreneurial sector for corporates playing catch-up (never mind the start-ups borrowing C-words from corporates).

Being innovative is like being cool — if you have to convince someone you are, then you probably aren’t. No amount of ping-pong tables, open-plan offices or post-it notes can make you innovative.

As one of our clients so succinctly put it:

“Innovative is not what you say you are, it’s what people say about you. Innovation is the end result, not the start… it’s what you achieve.”

Thanks Mary. Nailed it.

Unless you’re Dyson, innovation does not exist in a vacuum.

If we’re going to inspire people to be innovative we need to change the perspective on how we see, think and talk about innovation — much wider than the narrow lens of technology, products and commercialisation.

Innovation is not always sexy. It’s not always disruptive or radical, nor scalable, saleable, or even profitable. Sometimes it’s incremental, sometimes it’s informal. Sometimes it’s accidental or unexpected. Sometimes it’s just downright dull. Here’s a great example:

Economist Jason Murphy nominates the uber-mundane but uber-functional wheely-suitcase as the poster-child for innovation.

“Trunks and suitcases had been invented for millions of years along with the wheel, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that the two concepts were brought together. Now of course, everyone in the airport is dragging along their luggage on little wheels. It goes to show that yes, you can make an incremental improvement to a product that has been out there for a very long time and make a big, big difference.”

That’s some dull but necessary innovation right there. I feel like a sucker for humping my back-pack around Europe all those years ago when I could have got a miniature dog to pull my wheely-suitcase around.

To connect with real people we need to include more examples of what innovation looks like in the real world — the big ‘I’ and small ‘i’ of innovation.

How does your product or service make people’s lives easier or better? And how do you connect that message to the people and communities that need it most?

That’s the real story of innovation that needs to be told.

Andrew O’Keeffe is creative director and founder of Studio Alto. This article is an abridged version of this original from Alto.

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