Is Real Innovation More Social Than Technical?

I am a community builder. And, if there is a gene that contributes to being a practical community builder, I definitely received a double dose.

While community building clearly needs both wings and landing gear to fly, I am without a doubt a landing gear kind of woman. So, while I’m always intrigued by new concepts, ideas, and solutions for building communities, my real test for innovation is whether or not something really makes a difference for people.

As a result, for me innovation needs to be about challenging the status quo as well as believing that we can, and ought to, do better to make the world a better place.

The challenge of course is how to foster a culture of innovation that accelerates improvements to the quality of life in our communities. It seems to be a delicate balance between order and chaos especially since we know that new ideas are rarely hatched in rigidly structured environments.

Like many others I used to think that innovation was a blinding flash of brilliance from a lone inventor. Some genius-level individual looks for insights to develop into ideas and then shapes them into value-adding innovations. He or she then makes sure it works and does their due diligence before eventually getting it ready for market. Television shows like Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den, reinforce this thinking, as do the stories passed down about inventors – think Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

However, our team has learned that innovation might be about something more than a brilliant idea from one person. Instead, we are seeing that innovation is more likely to be about the relationships or networks that bring together already existing ideas or resources to apply them in different ways.

A painter who became a secretary, Betty Nesmith Graham, used her knowledge of how artists painted over their mistakes to invent Liquid Paper. Henry Ford’s best known invention of the assembly line was the result of taking existing learnings from Singer sewing machines, meat packing, and Campbell soup, and combining them in a totally new way to build cars efficiently. Although Nikola Tesla invented the alternating current, it was Thomas Edison who got the credit. His team and extensive networks resulted in electricity being a breakthrough or mainstream innovation. It also explains how US President Obama got elected. He used existing Facebook technology in a new way at the grassroots level that allowed him to harness supporters and donations. In the health field these days, translational research is bridging the gap between academics and practitioners to make sure what’s being researched has a practical use as well as to show how existing ideas can be applied in new ways. The new networks being set up to take research from academic to clinical settings to mainstream adaptation often result in creative re-combinations or applications rather than one flash of brilliance.

It would seem these innovations are as much about the social side as they are about the technical. Real innovation might just be the result of relationships, trust, and networks. Not just any relationships but instead extensive and diverse networks. In fact, the more diverse the mix, the better the resulting meshwork, and ultimately the fix, is likely to be.

The bottom line is that we’re all an important part of creating the culture of innovation that is essential for enhancing and improving our lives. You don’t have to fit the image of a mad scientist but you do have to be curious, willing to embrace experimentation, risk taking, exploratory thinking, and idea generation. Of critical importance will be an acceptance that it will also be necessary to hang out with others who may not typically be part of your posse.

Posted on 08-25-14

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