Innovation is everywhere — but what does it mean?

This week (April 15–21) is World Creativity & Innovation Week — a seven day celebration of the new, the different and the life-changing. But what exactly do creativity and innovation mean in this day and age?

The dictionary defines ‘innovation’ as “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods”. And that’s a good place to start. But it says nothing of the huge surge in popularity of innovation over the past decade. Innovation is now the modern day mantra and life blood of brands and business leaders alike. “Move fast and break things,” Mark Zuckerberg tells us. “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” advised Steve Jobs. Walt Disney touched on the subject far earlier even than those Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Today’s brands, and even whole countries, are judged by how innovative they are, with rankings such as the International Innovation Index, Innovations Indikator, Bloomberg Innovation Ranking, and Fast Companies Most Innovative Companies all driving the need to act faster.

In fact, so positive has our culture’s association with innovation become, so emphatic is the word and what it represents, it’s hard to believe that the term ‘Innovator’ was once branded as an insult.

Coming from the Latin ‘innovatus’ meaning ‘to renew or restore’, the first recorded use of the word innovation — in English at least — occurred in the 1590s. While the word was progressive, the times were not; ‘novation’ implied newness which was anathema to the strict religious dogma of Europe at the time. Being an ‘innovator’ could quite easily land you in jail.

As with many things, that changed in the 19th Century with the industrial revolution. Revolution itself is a stirring word, implying development and progress, and this golden age for science and industry placed invention on a pedestal. Innovation and invention gained positive connotations of a better future. Over time, invention has come to speak of that moment of pure creativity; whereas innovation has become about the ability to bring the new and life-improving to market.

Use of the word innovation has boomed since the 1950s, so you’d think that we are experiencing a peak period for innovation. In reality, the number of new inventions being created is declining — we just talk about them more. You could argue that we’re in the midst of a golden age for making innovations stick; increased social acceptance and the internet are responsible for the ease at which an innovation can scale. You only need look at the lightening growth of companies like Uber and AirBnB to see that in action.

But the real heyday for innovation — when the most and greatest inventions were being discovered — was arguably the late 1800s and early 1900s. And that’s when Philips was founded.

It’s almost impossible to talk about Philips without talking about innovation. From Gerard, Anton and Frederick’s humble beginnings in Eindhoven — discovering methods to mass produce the light bulb and bring light into the homes of Europe — through tens of thousands of patents, the urge to create the new and predict the future is part of the company’s DNA.

More than 100 years ago, the Philips brothers opened the NatLab — a laboratory dedicated wholly to in-house technical research that went far beyond product development. In 1927, the first Philips radio was produced; 12 years later, the Philishave — the world’s first electric razor — went on sale. And all the while, huge strides forward were being made in X-ray and healthcare technologies.

The compact cassette (1963) and the compact disc (1983) both changed the face of music, while the development of the first energy saving lightbulb (1980) pointed the way to a healthier, more sustainable future.

More recently, Philips has pioneered innovations such as the world’s first 3D X-ray scanner, energy efficient LED light bulbs and connected lighting, and microdose technologies in hospitals. In 2014, Philips was the second largest patent applicant in the world (2,317 patents, if you’re interested!), showing that the hunger to innovate is just as deeply ingrained in our psyche now as it was all those years ago when Gerard and Anton founded the company.

“Always ask oneself: Couldn’t this be different? Couldn’t this be better? I have found fantasy to be one of the key factors of success in a person’s life.”

This quote, from Anton Philips, is one we try to live and work by. But that’s enough of our story.

What #innovationmeans for CEO of Philips Frans van Houten.

What does innovation mean to you and your industry? Has that definition changed over the years? And what’s the next great buzzword? Will ‘sustainability’, ‘disruption’ or ‘design’ be the ‘innovation’ of tomorrow? #InnovationMeans.

“Creativity is contagious — pass it on.” — Albert Einstein