What’s in a Word? Bringing “Innovation” Back Down to Earth

Expert Talk
By Keith Blanchet

The word “innovation” is being thrown around a lot these days. As the term becomes normalized into the everyday vernacular, we need to educate ourselves about what it actually means to be innovative.

Technology is advancing at a rate unforeseen in history. Because of this, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important in our space. It would be easy to make a laundry list of the reasons why technology – and science in general – is vital to human existence. However, the purpose of science can be distilled in one simple statement: science should always contribute to the essential needs for humanity.

In the tech space, there are few words tossed around more than “innovation.” That’s innovative! This is innovative! She’s innovative! The science community has a particular habit of holding itself to a high regard (and with good reason), yet with that “high regard” often comes limited accessibility for the intimate workings of the discipline to be understood by the greater public space. Historically, one could argue that the use of specialized terminology was a tactic to ensure the preservation of knowledge – and therefore power – to an elite group of experts ‘in the know.’ Others could argue that science, when translated to the masses, loses its true fundamental meanings.

But the paradigm is shifting. Science is becoming more mainstream as technology becomes seamlessly integrated in our everyday life. As a result, the public space is becoming more in-tune with science and technology news and advancements. Is that awareness being matched by a measured attempt to audiences (and ourselves) to remember what science is for? The overuse of the word innovation proves otherwise.

The catalyst to this problem is varied. In the past, science has been, suffice to say, not ‘easy’ to understand to Laymen. The old catchphrase ‘It’s not rocket science!’ is a case in point. Perhaps, then, the lack of accessibility can be attributed to fear of the unknown, such as a “robot takeover”? Simply put, if there’s rarely effort to bring science down to earth – and remember its core purpose to help humanity – we lose sight of what’s actually innovative. Let’s put forth a measured effort to cultivate an open line of communication between the science community and the public. First up on the agenda? Bringing the word “innovation” back down to earth. I’ve identified five key pillars of innovation to serve as a conversation starter. What are yours?

 

  1.  Innovation is Knowing Your “Human” Purpose

A great innovator will be able to easily contextualize why his invention will make a positive impact. These great innovators are typically in-tune with the needs of humanity, and therefore their creations answer a specific need. A perfect example of this is Elon Musk. Despite the incredible complexity of the science behind his goals, he has made it his purpose to make technology accessible by making it inspiring. His purpose is abundantly clear: he wants people to get excited about the positive impact of science on society, and therefore about Tesla, Space X, or Solar City.

HIs approach is commendable because he gets people to dream. When people feel their dreams could be attainable, they engage with the science behind it, and they can be part of the solution. The science he’s creating actually reflects the ideal of the sharing economy he puts forth. With that, Musk cultivates a community of people who’ve bought into his vision — and subsequently, his product.

 

  1.  Innovation is Collaboration

Technology advancements today deal with systems of systems which require an ever-increasing range of fields of knowledge to coexist in the successful execution of a project. Trying to make a discovery or build a product as a single person or even company is increasingly difficult and almost always sub-optimal and short-sighted competitively. Businesses can “be” innovative when their environment is nimble and fluid and can adjust quickly to changes. That’s why start-ups, or young businesses, tend to generate faster technology advancements than highly established companies and are great collaboration options.

We are seeing more government-led structures encouraging collaboration between academics, companies and government research organisations as a means to accelerate advancements and develop fields of expertise that are strategic to a region or country. Considering Intellectual Property (IP) is always an issue, flexibility on this point is increasingly happening out of necessity rather than choice. And the results are promising: shining examples of this in Canada are the new Supercluster program or the Strategic Innovation Fund from which emerged the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN), which was a 5 year multi-player Industry-Academic program focussed on developing Robotics expertise in Canada, which has seen “wins” for all from the program, so much so that steps are underway to extend the network funding for another 5 years despite the increasing criteria for investment from the industrial members. Historically, this rarely happens; but it’s great for the economy, great for robotics, academics, and innovation in general. Innovation through collaboration is key and should always be structured as a win-win for every party involved.

The great news is that we are seeing more of these types of programs in a number of countries.

 

  1.  Innovation is Making Old Things New Again

There’s a misconception that innovation solely occurs when a new “discovery” has been made. Many “new” concepts or products are based on a foundation of known technologies. In literature, the idea of an “original” work is often debated, as some level of influence always precedes a work. This is true in our space; the “new” things are typically combinations of pre-existing technologies in novel and “innovative” ways.

 

In keeping with the Elon Musk theme, let’s use autonomous vehicles as an example. Autonomous vehicles are a combination of several other technologies that have existed in the past: Automotive subsystems have evolved independently and as distributed systems-of-systems for quite some time. On the other hand, autopilot technologies are commonplace in aeronautics while advanced vision and sensing technologies that have existed in the aerospace and national defense realms for years are now entering everyday life environments. Together, we have autonomous vehicles which will change society in profound ways in the years to come.

The most common form of innovation, and often the most productive, is when you bring all of these technologies together in a new context serving a human need that was previously ignored or overlooked. In recent years, greater processing and computing power has allowed for great advances in allowing individual technologies to be brought together to serve our modern world through various software implementations such as machine learning, image processing, advanced data analytics, etc….

So look for human or social needs first and then find the existing technologies you need to combine to satisfy that need…

 

  1.   Innovation is Adding Value

Simply put, you need to develop a new product with humans in mind, make sure you having a sound understanding of what they need and why they’ll want to use your technology.

When robotic technology is made only for experts, as is often the case, engineers, scientists and companies inherently paint themselves into a corner. We need to make technology accessible. Accessibility is about empowerment and catering to what people value. If your development doesn’t speak to either of those, you need to rethink. Whatever you make, you need to add value to someone’s life – therefore empowering them with whatever you’ve created.

 

  1.   Innovation is a Bearing a Responsibility

No one will dispute that technology is having a profound impact on the lives of individuals and society as a whole. Are we considering this in our development process?

Human Factors as a science should and will continue to be a growing responsibility for innovators. This is especially true in the field of robotics but applicable to many technology domains. How does the technology affect lives at a macro, regional, local and personal scale? How could this make humans feel and interact with one another?

In my view, technology should facilitate more meaningful human interaction and existence, not replace it. Innovators have a responsibility to ensure that before a product goes to market or technology is introduced. Let’s consider human nature, social impact and the growing expectation of personalized considerations in order to ensure the product or technology will, in fact, better the lives of humans.

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