Innovation and the Novelty Factory

My ears and eyes seem to have been bombarded by one word so often over the last couple of weeks that I’m now developing something akin to shell shock. A nervous tick here, a Tourette-esque outburst there, a cringe and a cry, a bewildered look in my eyes and a wanton desire to disconnect and float away.

Innovation.

Over hyped and over used the mere mention of innovation makes me wince.

You see

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What scares me about this trend is that now innovation is being talked about in government policy, institutional strategies and every goddamn mission statement known to man – and yet, I don’t think there is any understanding about what innovation is: what it really means, what it entails or the implications of adopting it actually are.

Horace Dediu posits a taxonomy which I think is extremely useful to help discern innovation and reduces some confusion:

Novelty: Something new
Creation: Something new and valuable
Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility
Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

Using that model we can see that a lot of what people declare as “innovative” should be re-graded as simple novelty, and what people want in their mission statements isn’t innovation but creation. Innovation is not for everyone. It is not something that everyone should aspire to or need to achieve. In fact the pursuit of innovation often means that quality, sustainability and longevity are put at risk.

Innovation is a lot harder and more difficult to achieve because it is essentially change. And the reality is that most people don’t want to do that.

People want the same, but better. Faster and cheaper, but not different.

Change is hard. It’s disruptive and scary. Innovation isn’t additive, it’s subtractive – you have to lose or destroy something in order to attain it. It’s not the same but better, it’s different and better. It requires the embrace of something new, different and foreign.

Innovation is not something everyone should be striving for, and the reality is that they’re actually not. They use the label of “innovation” but if you listen to the pundits in government, technology and finance sectors what they actually want is Novelty. They want something that generates “new” at scale and from very little real investment or effort. What they crave is the Novelty Factory where you can package something differently, appify it, give it a new spin, change the colour and produce it at scale, but never actually do anything different. The reason for this is that novelty has the potential for massive profits, simply because who doesn’t like new? It’s engrained in our psyche to be curious and that’s exploited ruthlessly through an array of psychological manipulations that drive the cravings of a consumerist economy.

You’ll hear plenty about “disruption” but how much of that is actual innovation? How much is actually changing? Isn’t it just the same as before? Isn’t it just like the other thing? Isn’t it simile rather than metaphor? If we actually think about it, it’s distraction rather than disruption.

People don’t want to invest in innovation because change is really hard. It’s complex, expensive and risky and more often than not takes time – years if not decades. It requires behaviours and mindsets to adapt to entirely different concepts, inputs and environments. It requires people to leave behind what they did, what they built reputations on, what they trust and tacitly know, and replace it with something strange. Innovation is about trust and relationships more than anything else. It’s about building, shaping and learning not just coming up with ideas.

What most people want is novelty – simple, cheap, dumb and easy to sell. You can invest in that. You can profit from that.

Silicon Valley isn’t the hub of innovation – it’s a perfect model of the Novelty Factory churning out vast quantities of “new”, but affecting little real change. Sure there are innovators operating there, but they simply share the space rather than dominate it.

Real innovation requires change, not from the product but the audience, user or consumer. That’s where the complexity lies – it’s not about coming up with something new, its about convincing people to change. To let go of traditions and to trade in status, comfort and power from the old model to embrace something new and different. It’s for this reason that true innovation is exceedingly rare. There are plenty of new things we do, but how many require real change? How many were really just the same, but better? How many were subtractive and forced you to give away, give up and destroy?

Innovation is not as pervasive as we think, nor should it be as widespread as we’re led to believe.

I think there’s a need for a more nuanced approach to innovation, invention, creation and novelty. The distinctions are important and there’s a growing need to articulate the difference, to accept it and to choose what it is they need. If we want governments and institutions to embrace innovation we need to really understand what that means and what’s at risk. Maybe when we think about it novelty is enough, or that creativity is more important. Maybe that’s the real innovation.

*Image used https://flic.kr/p/4jCHgj

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9 thoughts on “Innovation and the Novelty Factory

  1. I was wondering if you meant innovation as a thing/ a product or service. I think it is useful to think of innovation as a process (collaborative) and involving more than the usual suspects:)

    • I agree – I think innovation is much closer to a process than a thing. The product or service might be representative, illustrative or symbolic but it might not necessarily the innovation itself. Something like the iPhone or iPad is a good example. The innovation is encapsulated by the device itself but the innovation was really in the affordances that mobile computing allows.

  2. This is very timely for a workshop I am preparing. I believe not only is there heavy novelty in higher ed, there is also heavy bandwagon novelty. We jump on without even doing the work to know if we have a problem that the novelty might solve. Great post.

    • Thanks Lisa. I think novelty is still a valid and important thing. It taps into our subconscious which is why it’s so pervasive. It has a way of capturing our attention so fully it’s disturbing once the infatuation wears off. And that’s kind of the central point – novelty wears off and fades away, innovation is change. There’s no going back, that’s gone!

      When it comes to education I think the issue is that the innovation that’s needed is really freaking hard! It’s about revisiting the fundamentals of the system – the structure, assessment, value, measurement and capital – it’s no wonder novelty is the appealing choice 🙂

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  4. Tim, this is really great. What this suggests is that what we’re chasing in universities in the moment isn’t just novelty, but a combination of novelty and efficiency (your very good points about scale). Essentially, we’re pursuing product upgrade.

    I’m noticing a companion term: transformation. Our search for novelty institutional synonyms for change is based on the assumption that what we’re doing at the moment is deficient, but I don’t think we have really precise data on how it’s deficient — so we don’t have precisely targeted solutions. Instead, we have the pursuit of novelty for its own sake.

    • Thanks Kate. I agree that universities are and should be pursuing same but better – in most cases better equals more efficient. That’s not without merit given the economic and governmental pressures they’re under. The trap is that they’re stuck with seeking these improvements not through creative or innovative approaches – no they’re stuck with novelty sold as innovation. Most EdTech is replicating current and established practice rather than embracing the affordance to radically change.

      Synonyms for change is a really interesting idea that opens up a whole new can of worm, but you’re right. Transformation is another one of these terms that is applied to things it clearly is not. I think it boils down to the lack of clearly articulated problems – hence novelty for it’s own sake.

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