The power and promise within innovation: shifting up our gears

Are the rules around innovation changing? Are we spotting the changes in the drivers and current deterrents of innovation? What are the present day perceptions around the innovation challenges?

GE released their first-of-its-kind “Global Innovation Barometer” at the end of January 2011. It is focusing on identifying the changing landscape for innovation in the 21st century. It suggests innovation will be a catalyst for improving multiple areas of citizen’s lives in the next ten years.

In many ways it paints a very optimist future for innovation. Innovation, the survey predicts, will create jobs, improve lives, address more human needs, find better ways to collaborate and learn, and simply create good in people’s lives with the promise of prosperity.

I wonder a little differently: are we not placing too bigger a burden on innovations shoulders?”

This report ( ) follows a previous one that came out in July 2010 that was an European survey, again sponsored by GE, ( ) on the current barriers and the current state of innovation policies within the EU, just prior to the release of the much awaited EU Innovation Union document (  outlining their strategy for achieving the 2020 goals.

The EU survey is not what I’m commenting upon here, although I might come back to it in a subsequent blog as it supports significant change to the EU’s approach to innovation.

The burdens of expectations placed on innovation seemingly are growing

Reading both reports commissioned by GE there is a heavy weight of expectations to come from innovation. The  global survey has many significant aspirations and to list but a few:

  • The belief that innovation is (truly) global and the main lever for a more competitive national economy
  • It is the nature and value of innovation that is changing
  • Innovation will be centred more on prosperous and competitive activities
  • Innovation will be the best way to create jobs in countries
  • Innovation and competitiveness are inextricably linked through growth and jobs
  • Innovation will increasingly integrate more social and human dimensions
  • Innovation will address societal needs, green the world and improve lives (health, energy, education)

The new model is the power of “I” for impact.

Innovation will be totally different than how we have innovated within the past according to this report. Some of the key aspects given are:

  • It will need to be more localized to service specific markets
  • It will focus on individuals and SME’s who will be more or equally innovative as the large organizations
  • It will call for integrated solutions that bring value to society as a whole.
  • It will require more impactful innovation, focused on human needs more than just profits
  • It will require incorporating partnerships between several players to bring success

The perceived barriers for the Innovation Optimism Paradox.

The survey looked at country perceptions. In this survey only 12 countries were surveyed and the optimism continuum shows real differences on the belief and trust placed in the country’s ability of innovation to transform their society and improve citizens’ lives. These clusters of optimists, traditionalists and pessimists are driven by the country’s relationship to innovation changes, sources and purpose.

I found this (attempted) comparison on this optimism continuum as interesting and useful. Stuck in the traditionalists are five of the twelve countries. These were USA, Israel, Australia, Sweden & Germany. These are all in amongst the present day leading innovative countries. The others within the survey as optimists were Saudi Arabia, UAE, Brazil and India and in the pessimists were China, South Korea and Japan.

There are many thoughts that possibly can open up with this sort of designation but let me stay within the confines of this report. Traditionalists by the surveys definitions were mainly “driven by hard science, serve global markets’ products and services needs and not specifically to serve society needs. These want to protect what they have more than adhere to a new model, their needs are very specific and diverse”. This definition does sound very US & EU in its reality today.

My real concerns from this GE sponsored Global Innovation Barometer.

There is a lot of ‘open’ interpretation from this global survey. GE has taken the optimistic route, perhaps for self justification, perhaps because it needs to manage its own changes towards managing innovation successfully. That has a potential great takeaway for the future direction for GE if they can grasp it, although it will be a bold step. The comments made in the press release at the time by Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer and senior vice president, GE holds promise: “the results clearly demonstrate that globally our priorities are shifting from innovations that simply make money to innovations that also create good in people’s lives.” And “fosters creativity, and emphasizes solutions that meet local needs. I feel GE are dipping their toe in these innovation waters more and more, it is getting nearer in time for them to make the real deep, all committing plunge, if they believe their own research.

I reacted in some different ways, certainly optimistic about where innovation fits within the future thinking on creating jobs, improving society and addressing human needs. It has the potential to do this but…

The pessimist side also kicked in. The survey was based on interviews with 1,000 senior business executives, conducted by telephone across 12 countries. All respondents are directly involved in their company’s innovation processes and are VP and above with 30% of those surveyed C-suite. Is this truly representative of the world of reality surrounding innovation? Don’t this group have a vested interest to promote innovation in these ways?

The fear of groupthink needs resolving in future surveys.

These are people working within their own innovation bubbles, wanting to relate what they are doing with the bigger societal issues we need to face but is there a touch of “groupthink” here? Wikipedia defines ‘groupthink’ as a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. It is a second potential negative consequence of group cohesion. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in thought that might normally be obtained, in this case by more open discussion and not (semi) structured questions asked over the telephone . The survey should counter balance those from ‘within’ with those that are still ‘without’ to clarify innovations impact.

You can get a ‘warm and fuzzy secure feeling’ also

I welcome the report, don’t get me wrong, it helps point us in new directions because of the changing need that innovation can help deliver but these will not on just innovations own. It has many positive pointers but it does not address the gaps, the report itself reveals. Perhaps this will come from future surveys, I think they should be less on a barometer of the innovation climate but more on assessing the changes identified within this survey. It should point more of the ways to shift this innovation barometer.

The survey brings out perceptions that need resolving. Some of these for example are:

The positive perceptions show the general public is not so convinced of the value innovation can bring to their day-to-day lives

In the balanced perceptions there are three lags that need improving: the (lack of) speed at which innovative products are adequately coming to market, trade regulations are still a limit (or constraint) to commercial success and thirdly, private investors are not supportive of companies that need funds to innovate.

The most negative perceptions are that government support is not as efficiently organized and coordinates, governments should allocate more share of their total budgets to support innovative companies and thirdly, that Public authorities do not support SME’s and large companies that want to innovation.

In all of these there is possibly nothing new but as they are focused on the ‘known’s’, the current drivers and present deterrents, and not the ‘unknowns’ or less articulated needs, for making societal innovation happen as GE wants to paint the picture of moving to a new innovation paradigm.

Lastly within these concerns I would have liked to see from this survey more on possible solutions to the future bigger innovation picture.  I come back to the Traditionalists, here lies a real roadblock. This is where innovation is truly stuck. “They want to protect what they have more than adhere to a new model, their needs are specific and diverse” Here lies the big challenge to overcome.

Expectations come with changing parameters

I hope this ‘first-of- a-kind report” can really build on this initial work. It ‘hints’ at a new innovation landscapes that we need to take foward. It indicates to GE and others who care to read this, that globally our priorities are shifting from innovations that simply make money to innovations that also create well in people’s lives and meet their local needs.

I welcome GE’s exploration and hope for its future innovation barometers it can set out more of the enablers to make this journey to the new landscape reality. None of us need a warm and fuzzy understanding only; we need clarity so we can all move towards this new innovation dawn, with some fresh light and power from more of GE’s help and investigations. GE have the global innovation promise in their hands.

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