Navigating the Innovation Gap: Innovation or Invention?

September 22, 2017 Sara Audisho

Innovation or invention? What’s the difference and is it an important distinction to make?

At first glance, using these terms interchangeably doesn't seem like a big deal. After all, one can lead to the other, and both have the potential to create great change in the lives of consumers.

Where an issue may arise with equating the two is assuming that every invention is innovation.

Bill Walker at Wired spells it out for us:

“Invention is about creating something new, while innovation introduces the concept of ‘use’ of an idea or method…An invention is usually a ‘thing’, while an innovation is usually an invention that causes change in behavior or interactions.”

Being an inventor requires designing something that no one else has thought of before. Surely an accomplishment in and of itself, but does this invention go on to steer our behaviour in our everyday lives? Think the automobile, cellular phone and social media.

As entertaining as infomercials for the Snuggie or Slapchop are (don’t lie, we know you weirdly enjoy them too), these patented inventions haven't initiated shifts in society, be it in technology, infrastructure, social interactions or otherwise.

Now, maybe the bar for innovation doesn't have to be set at something as transformative as the automobile. Household items like the refrigerator, microwave and vacuum have saved each of us enormous amounts of time and money. All of this just means that fidget spinners won't be the answer to bridging the innovation gap. Sorry to break it to you.

“Invention is easy – innovation is genius (or accidental),” says Walker. Take his example of the iPhone. Today's most popular phone was not really a groundbreaking creation. We know that touchscreens, applications, user interfaces and mobile communications for voice and data existed before Apple swamped the market with its first cellular device.

So no, the iPhone was not an invention. That doesn’t mean, however, that it wasn’t innovative. Users of iPhones know that the device is unparalleled to most other phones in terms of, well, everything you’d need in a phone. There wasn’t anything quite like the first iPhone before its release, and the device spurred development of media forms that have drastically altered our social landscape.

At the core of understanding the difference between inventions and innovations, then, is their big picture impact. Apple did not invent the first “smart” device or touchscreen, but the iPhone’s transformative effect on society is a testament to how innovative it is.

Summary point: very few inventions are innovations and very few innovations are inventions.

Huh?

In other words: most inventions do not drastically change life as we know it. Those that do were either innovative to begin with or laid the groundwork for someone else to come along and make it innovative. In the same vein, that's what most of innovation is - not brainstorming something that hasn't been done before, but taking an existing idea and creating a new iteration of it.

Just in case any confusion remains, consider what is not an invention and what is not innovative. The Chicago Tribune published an article last week highlighting things Silicon Valley recently “invented that already existed.” The article profiled several companies that have profited off of repackaging ideas and selling them as ‘new’ and ‘innovative’.

One example was a hi-tech juicer that came with a subscription of pre-packaged bags of fruits and vegetables. Marketed beyond belief to be a game changer, the juicer ran its course with consumers and is now shutting down its operations.

The moral of the story? Well there are two, actually. Consumers want utility out of what they buy. Items have to either save them time or be worth the time they have. And more importantly, don't write off an inventor or an innovator. You never know when either (or both) will bring you the next automobile or refrigerator.


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