What is innovation and why does it matter?

Published on July 31, 2022   11 min
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My name is John Bessant. I'm Emeritus Professor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter in the UK. The talk I'd like to give today is all about, what is innovation and why does it matter?
Innovation. It's a wonderful word. But if we think about it, there's a problem because that word is everywhere. I'll give you 30 seconds on any company website before you'll probably bump into it. A magic word says that innovation is working for our people, innovations driving the business, innovation, innovation everywhere. These days, in the public sector, it's pretty much the same story. If we want to deal with our big challenges in the country, well, what we need is more innovation. That word is on the lips of civil servants all around the country. Innovation, innovation, innovation. Now, of course, it is a really important word, but just saying it isn't enough. If we're serious about working with it, we need to understand what it is and how to make it work. What is innovation?
Well, the word originally comes from the Latin, "innovare", to make something new, to change. Yeah, that helps us. But perhaps a more useful definition is to see that innovation is about creating value from ideas. Now, that value could be commercial value, but it could also be social value.
Let's look at a few examples. A good place to start might be the smartphone in your pocket. That's a pretty impressive example of innovation. But, of course, this goes back a long way. Way back in the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg came up with the printing press. It revolutionised things for its time, particularly how we communicated information. It was really the internet of its time. Or the Wright brothers, starting off at Kitty Hawk, in their rather flimsy first aeroplane. But, of course, that gave birth to whole word of of travel and communication. Or take the pharmaceutical industry. In 2020, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we came to really rely upon what the industry has done for a very long time; provide drugs and vaccines and things to keep us healthy. Or Henry Ford and his motorcar. A hundred years ago, he created the car for everyone that everyone can afford and that changed the future of transportation. These days, 100 years later, we're looking at another big change in personal transportation moving towards electromobility.