The buzz around innovation

19th February 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD

Whatever cynics might say, buzz has a value. It changes language and culture and that is hugely important in social transformation

19th February 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD

Whatever cynics might say, buzz has a value. It changes language and culture and that is hugely important in social transformation

As write my twenty first Innocolumn, I find that I am reflective. Is innovation really increasing in the world? Is it too much of a buzz word? If so, is that good or bad? When plain Joe thinks of innovation, Apple,Google and the like come to mind. Why none from India or its mighty corporations?

George Mason University economist, Tyler Cowen, opines that no matter what the hype may be, the forward march of technological progress in the world has hit a dry spell since 1970. “Look at the period from 1870 to 1940 and think about how unbelievably creative and powerful that was,” he argues. He goes on to wonder whether a great ability to manipulate information has been practised by a few people who keep talking about innovation. I get curious about its history and etymology.

In Indian languages, there is no colloquial word for innovation, emphasise colloquial – I know this because I speak Tamil, Hindi, and Bengali fluently. There are words but you have to resort to a Sanskritised artifice. Is that so in English as well? How and when did it come into English?

Emma Green’s denouement of the history of the word ‘innovation’ (The Atlantic) provides a clue. Canadian historian Benoit Godin states that the word ‘innovation’ first appeared in the texts on law to mean renewing contracts. It had no connection with creativity, it merely meant renewal. During the seventeenth century, when Europe was far more conservative, every attempt to interpret religious matters was anathema. English puritan, Henry Burton, published pamphlets against ‘church innovators’ to suggest that such people were upstarts and imitators, not very complimentary. ‘Innovation’ in the early years carried a retrograde tonal quality.

With the industrial revolution, ‘invention’ became a highly desired activity and by 1800, the word came into common English usage. Soon, this previously pejorative word started to get applied to science, and the innovation word entered the lexicon through a mental association with technical invention; perhaps that explains why to this date, innovation is linked in many peoples’ minds to R&D rather than to business models.

This is quite unlike in emerging markets, where the term jugaad has many contextual usages. An equivalent of jugaad exists in Brazil (gambiarra), in China (zizhu chuangxin) and in software (kluge).

Google’s useful Ngram database of word use suggests that in 1800, the word invention was used four times as frequently as innovation; after a century and a half, invention and innovation became equally used; since 1970, innovation has overtaken invention and the innovation word has been used more frequently. The distance between the usages of innovation over invention is increasing. So what caused the pattern of word usage to change?

For the first time, in 1939, Schumpeter differentiated between the two words by stating that innovation involved commercialisation, not just a new idea. From 1950 onwards, the American economy brimmed with growth and ideas. Innovation began to be thought of and funded as a packaged, predictable research product. Some experts like Tyler Cowen feel that innovation peaked around 1970.

On January 1, 1969, a Bell Labs researcher, Jack Morton, and two scientifically trained journalists, William Maass and Robert Colborn, abandoned their traditional professions. They formed a company called Technology Communication, and this company placed advertisements in Scientific American and The Wall Street Journal inviting readers to become members of a new and elite group called Innovation Group. The company also began to publish a magazine, Innovation.

One year later in January 1970, 200 technology managers assembled for a workshop at Glen Cove, Long Island, to learn what it takes to be an innovator. They wove parables about how their lives were changed by ‘the accelerating rush of innovation’ and attendees were encouraged to ‘seize the chance’ that was offered to them. This weekend workshop, for which participants paid the modern equivalent of $3,000 each, captured a club-like exclusivity, expert insight and collective self-help.

In hindsight, Technology Communications Company, Innovation magazine and the exclusive Innovation Group created the fillip and buzz around innovation. As an aside, after the Long Island workshop, two tragedies occurred – Robert Colborn died of cancer and Jack Morton was set ablaze in a gruesome murder. What an end to enthusiastic purveyors of innovation!

This brief history demonstrates the value of creating buzz: writing about and celebrating innovation in a journalistic way. Whatever cynics might say, buzz has a value. It changes language and culture, and that is hugely important in social transformations.