12 June 2009

"There's no such thing as a science of innovation"

Shlomo Maital, noted economist and innovation guru, gave a talk to the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto the other day, in which he reminded the audience that "There's no such thing as a science of innovation." Science is based on the premise of contingent knowledge, whereby current understandings of the world are testable and evolve as we observe, review, and learn about phenomena. Maital's premise is that innovation is about breaking rules: there is no science inherent to innovation. Innovation is likened to the state of creativity a child has before going to school. Those who survive school with creativity intact are more likely to succeed in entrepreneurial activity, Maital posits. His talk - "Stumbling on the Star Trek Principle: Innovation Secrets of da Vinci, Edison, Einstein and Picasso" - outlined his view that, in order to succeed at disruptive innovation, we must "boldly go where no one has gone before". This is particularly important now, in the midst of a global depression, as history teaches us that depressions are the fulcrum for great innovation. Loathe to deploy business school jargon, Maital invoked the "paradigm shift," whereby the rules by which we do business will be fundamentally rewritten. Every single industry, he says, will rewrite its rules. Those who do the writing will emerge as the new leaders.

Many pundits have weighed in on similar issues, and there is evidence to support Maital's claims that innovation emerges from depressions. His trenchant question--what will the new rules of the game be?--can be resolved only through a creativity that leads to thinking differently. We must also be amenable to failure. "A reason to fail is a powerful lever for innovation," as it is the freedom to learn from failure that is the hallmark of innovators. "Innovation is breaking the rules" he says, and our ability to imagine the future (via a "future photograph"), combined with an ability to learn from mistakes, lets us enable a future state.

Maital ended with a call to action, to use the principles of design to design our lives. This is the basic principle of the Innovation Support Services that we use in our applied research services. That is, we focus on the intentional application of design and expertise within our faculty and student community to support innovative activity within the College and within industry partnerships. Design for us is the fulcrum for solving industry problems. A triad of programs at George Brown College--the Institute without Boundaries, the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Community Innovation, and the Research Commercialization and Innovation programs--all have design as a component of their educational programming. The GBC Research Labs has expertise in human centred and participatory design, and this informs our approach to collaborative problem solving with our partners.

While there may be no science of innovation, there is definitely a need for science in innovation. The intentional application of applied research and innovation services to industry needs and contexts means we focus less on discovery, and more on the design and diffusion of innovation - how to test the practicality of new products or services (adoption and adaptation). This application requires disciplined approaches to problem solving, to induce innovation and encourage its incipient growth.

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