How to Define Innovation

Pierce Gordon, Ph.D.
Mar 4, 2019 · 16 min read

It’s not as cut and dry as you think.

Is there a word for Innovation in Setswana?

That’s one question I can’t answer.

I had finished my research presentation to the Botswana International University of Science and Technology and was fielding questions about the difficult nature of integrating innovation into a transitioning economy. The topics ranged from how to facilitate partnerships, what a more inclusive innovation culture might look like, and the history of development projects for indigenous communities.

For most of the discussion, everyone was quiet. But, when I asked that question, everyone clearly had something to say.

Now, during my research, there were two words respondents constantly brought up as rough translations: bonokopila, which roughly means excellence, and maranyane, which means technology. Both those concepts are close, but don’t quite translate everything about the concept of innovation. Though their words didn’t go far, I remember hearing a few naysayers in the audience.

“We already could use the English word instead. Why does this debate even matter?”

“Silicon Valley models for tech production such as design thinking, startup incubators, lean management, etc. are spreading across the globe. These paradigms are positioned by product designers, politicians, investors and corporations alike as replicable routes to individual and national empowerment.” [1]

Innovation practice is spreading. The paper above illustrates how entrepreneurs in Ghana, China, and Jamaica are all aiming to uptake innovation in their country to become a part of a new industrial revolution.

My own research makes this glaringly clear; in Botswana, the country is currently working through its own innovation transition. If you ask anyone how, they’ll point you towards their brand new science and technology park, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

The value of innovation is being argued as a clear business motivator as well; the Design Value Index reveals a collection of design-centric companies show a return of 211% over the S&P 500.


Innovation practice is growing in a litany of professional fields:

More institutions, organizations, and people are learning about the power of innovation as a motivating agent in society.

What’s unique about the spread of this field, however, is that people don’t even agree on what exactly it means. How can the global community better spread and implement innovation, when we don’t even agree on its nature?

Today’s we’ll be going on a discussion about what it means to innovate, based on views informed by economics, business, design, and indigenous perspectives. There are countless more, but learning about these will help us better navigate which definitions to use.

Maybe, you’ll come to understand why the world is better served without a grand unified theory of innovation.

Innovation in Economics

Schumpeter claimed that he had set himself three goals in life: to be the greatest economist in the world, to be the best horseman in all of Austria and the greatest lover in all of Vienna. He said he had reached two of his goals, but he never said which two, although he is reported to have said that there were too many fine horsemen in Austria for him to succeed in all his aspirations.

Source: Wikipedia

Let’s talk about the father of the field.

Source: Wikipedia

The field of economics, as you might understand, is the social science devoted to studying the production, consumption, and distribution of resources.

Many thinkers from the field have influenced how the world governs itself: from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, from Keynes to Sen, the impassioned debates of these deep thinkers have impacted how we as a community manage — or mismanage — the world.

Schumpeter, however, is the maverick responsible for introducing innovation to economics in a comprehensive and intelligent manner, that is still used centuries later.

Schumpeter put forth a new understanding of capitalism itself: that it was an ‘evolutionary process’ that constantly goes through a process of ‘creative destruction’: “ [The] process of industrial mutation…that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” [2]

According to him, the theory of economic development covers at least four key elements:

[1] he considers the process of economic development to be…driven by the creation of new combinations including new products, new production methods or processes, new organizational forms, new markets, and new sources of raw materials and inputs.

[2] these combinations are carried out by entrepreneurs who are motivated to undertake certain actions.

[3] the entrepreneur is the change agent whose actions disturb the equilibrium of the steady state and cause economic discontinuities.

[4] the emergence of credit-providing institutions plays a key role in stimulating entrepreneurial activities. [2]

Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack. However, one critical point of this theories is that the entrepreneur is the hero of the economic story; where there is a change in the market, they are the ones who cause it. Entrepreneurs do it through innovation: they make something better, faster, at a lower price, by attracting a new market, by using different resources. Whatever is new and useful, they aim to utilize for the benefit of the world’s people.

He was arguably the first philosopher to study entrepreneurship as a concept, and his thinking truly changed how economists studied markets.

So, you might ask: what has Schumpeter influenced recently?

A study on tech hubs run by the World Bank reveals:

that since 2016, the number of active tech hubs across Africa has grown by over 50%.”

For decades, countries aimed to economically and politically progress based on the few sources available to them — and the relationship with colonized countries. When Botswana gained independence in 1966, it decided to leverage its immensely available resource — diamonds.

With an income per capita of $80 a year, Botswana was among the poorest countries in the world. Today, the country is considered upper-middle income country with a per capita income of almost $17,000 a year.

Diamonds bought roads, railways, airlines, telecommunications, free education, and health facilities; the institution and culture are forever impacted by the decades of growth from the diamond economy.[3]

However, diamonds aren’t forever. The country is currently working to diversify its economy in many ways, and like many other countries in the world, Botswana decided the answer is to build their capacity to locally innovate.

Policies documents were made, new universities were created, state of the art science and technology government boards were established — all to advance the innovation capacity of the Botswana innovation ecosystem. Even if the normal Motswana doesn’t quite grasp the nature and depth of the change, they acknowledge the country is striving towards the change — somehow.

To determine the impact of these changes, the country aims to measure innovation’s impact on political and economic progress. To do so, they use the Oslo Manual as a foundation, an international standard for countries to assess the impact and perceptions of innovation activities in the country.

These policy instruments were methodologically influenced by the Oslo Manual [197], a document organized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that aims to develop an international standard for collecting and interpreting technological innovation data [198].

The manual names innovation as an essential consideration in facilitating healthy knowledge-based economies, and interested parties have only recently begun to understand the field with any depth.

The primary theoretical influence towards supporting innovation is the works of Schumpeter, which initially stated the theory for the economic incentivization for innovations: firms that are seeking rents [3].

Did you catch that last part? Joseph Schumpeter’s thoughts are the foundation. Every country in Africa — and around the world — uses Schumpeter as the foundation to determine the scope and depth of innovative activity.

These businesses in countries and their innovation activities and outcomes — the type of innovation, the funding spent on the activity, how much it costs, the perceived value of innovation to business owners—are all considered in the analysis. As it stands, innovation is deemed as most impactful when it’s a change to the world. Like we discussed before, the purpose is a shift in the market dynamics- the larger shift, the more successful the innovation activity.

According to this definition, Innovation happens when it globally disrupts human’s relationships with its resources. Each opportunity to track, control, and measure those innovations is an opportunity to determine its impact on society.

However, our relationship with the resources we use is just one way of interpreting the world. For those wanting to learn how exactly to innovate, Schumpeter’s definition might circumscribe the boundaries, but it leaves little opportunity for people to meditate on what it looks like.

This is why I appreciate working definitions when talking about innovation. They can be adapted and evolved over time based on your needs, but as assumed, it can actually help you do the innovation work.


Though there are many useful resources on innovation studies, I’ve found Ten Types of Innovation to be especially useful.

Doblin have done research on hundreds of different companies throughout the world that differentiate themselves from their business competitors in unique ways: their profit model, their branding, their type of product, and must more. They then categorized the forms of differentiation and presented it for your entrepreneurial needs.

The text also develops a succinct, multi-part, working definition of innovation that I use to this day:

“Innovation (1) is the creation of a viable (2) new (3) offering (4).”

Four parts. In this, they posit that:

(1) Innovation is not invention; it requires a deep understanding of the customers, or beneficiaries, that will value the product.

(2) It must be able to support itself by offering value to the world. The book defines this by being able to return the weighted cost of capital. I believe it might also mean it’s politically and/or culturally sustainable as well.

(3) It must be novel: to the world, to a market, industry, or a community.

(4) It doesn’t have to be a product. It could be a service, a policy, and experience, even a sustained connection.

The purpose of this definition is not just to determine what is possible, but to give communities working ground to isolate whether they’re working towards something innovative. When it comes to innovation, this definition focus on impactful, workable, social change.

However, innovation isn’t just an end state.

The definitions above focus on the development of something new, impactful that shapes the world. That means the thing is assumed to be complete.

But innovation is also a verb; an action, a process to undergo to make new states of being. MIT’s D-lab, for instance, reframed its academic and research offerings from co-creation and design to ‘Innovation Practice’, as I have in my dissertation.

At the end of the day, whether innovation is mainly an offering or a process is an exercise in semantics. What is important, however, is that it takes a completely different mindset to study global impacts of certain innovations than it does to engage in innovation itself.

So, who do we turn to learn more about defining the process of design and innovation?

Let’s talk about the first design thinkers.

Like innovation, the design field has many influences throughout history. As a field that has its roots in empowering people to make a change in society, some researchers make the case that by designing, we reflect what it means to be human. For example:

One scholar of note was the eighteenth-century Italian scholar Gambattista Vico.…As one who deeply understood what it takes to design social realities, not just the material artifacts supportive of them, he took issue with René Descartes’ belief that “the mind was an organ whose function was to represent the world that existed outside of it as accurately as possible.”

Instead, he argued that “human knowing results from doing, from creating things, from constructing the world one lives in….one could interpret Vico’s New Science as providing a human-centered epistemology that is grounded in design activity, not in detached observation. One convincing proof for this principle is the absolute certainty of mathematics, which he correctly identified as a human invention, not a reflection of nature [3].”

There already are luminary histories of design as a field; and if you’ve come this far, I deeply suggest you check out Jo Szczepanska’s fantastic archive.

Besides introducing the world to the different people and influences of the field, the archive reveals the many different definitions of design through the years. We’ve been asking this question all day; which is right?

Well, it depends on who you ask. It involves broadening outside of the view of economics, and disrupting the state of the world for the better:

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

Herbert Simon

It’s something that anyone can do,

“Everyone can — and does — design. We all design when we plan for something new to happen, whether that might be a new version of a recipe, a new arrangement of the living room furniture, or a new lay tour of a personal web page. […] So design thinking is something inherent within human cognition; it is a key part of what makes us human.”

Nigel Cross

Yet it’s also an activity in the purview of unique experts aiming to solve unique problems.

“Design for social innovation is everything that expert design can do to activate, sustain and orient processes of social change towards sustainability.”

Ezio Manzini

At the same time, some current design actors have adopted its evolving, dynamic, and multi-disciplinary methods to their current practice:

We use a mixture of design processes. We’ve got a diversity of designers, including service designers, graphics designers, information designers, programmers, marketers, social scientists, positive psychologists, and even anthropologists. This diversity of experts bring different techniques related to their disciplines, and this mixture creates a unique design process — we call it a co-design process — whereby we capture public views.

Deborah Szebeko

So, how do we make sense of all of this? We’re looking for a definition, and we’ve got many different types of people expressing all the parts of design we didn’t know existed. Moreover, there are so many other people who’ve made salient points. Who do we believe?

What’s important to tease out here is that the many practitioners, scientists, and philosophers have adapted and evolved the definition of design and innovation over time, based on what they believe the field lacks. As those who live on the border of the possible, they perceive when and how the world must be changed. That includes critiquing how people shape the world as well, through the field of design itself.

If innovation needs more disciplines, they include that in their definition. If it requires better design expertise, they include that as well. If it needs to be better oriented to humans, or sustainability, or to a certain unvoiced community, it must include that as well. Design’s definition adapts to the needs of the people who redefine its scope and purpose.

Designers will continue to redefine design; that much is clear. What’s we can take from this, however, isn’t just that people will constantly debate design’s nature. It’s that it meaning changes and evolves, based on who has the power to have that debate

Which then begs the important question: who has the power to determine design?

The Front of D’Kar’s Innovation Center.

Let me introduce you to D’Kar.

It’s about 40 kilometers away from the closest big town in the area, and it takes is eight hours to drive to Botswana’s capital city. It’s the home village of a unique collection of indigenous villagers, called the San, that are considered by historical anthropologists to be some of the oldest people in the world because of their intensely high genetic diversity.

D’kar, like many other communities, suffers from the ‘last mile’ problem; hospitals, businesses, and schools all struggle to connect with the rest of the world simply because of how far it takes for anything to get there.

At the same time, It also houses the country’s first maker space. Of course, you knew that; it obviously translates from Naro to “Innovation Center.”

Through the efforts of the International Development Innovation Network, development entrepreneurs have come to International Development Design Summits over the past four years to work on locally empowering technology projects that address the needs of the community.

The projects include deep-sand wheelchairs, precision seed planters, and hand-powered washing machines — all to help create locally developed innovations that address the local needs of this community.

Interesting, then, that the San people also don’t have a direct translation for the concept of innovation.

Like bonokopila in Setswana, there’s a whole vocabulary of creative activity that isn’t readily translated into the click consonant language San communities speak. During my research, I found a linguist that theorized the reason is deeply entrenched in the country’s culture:

“The reason why the term so difficult to translate, is because a Motswana don’t train to innovate, they train to preserve…. In this, traditional is seen as authentic. If something is innovated it won’t be as authentic, and thus won’t be as valuable.”

University of Botswana Professor

The concept is called linguistic relativity; that a language affects the speakers’ worldview and/or cognition. For instance, the professor mentioned how English has names for many types of dogs, but Setswana does not; but Setswana has countless words for the colors of cattle, as cattle are imperative to Tswana culture and livelihoods.

Programs like these reveal how far innovation has spread worldwide, but also how is further spread requires even deeper understanding. What is clear, however, that innovation of this form cannot be a “helicopter solution”, where its outcomes are simply dropped in like humanitarian food aid. Innovation practice must build up the culture, infrastructure, and resource to ensure its sustainable at these margins.

Like many innovations before them, new ideas are most readily accepted by communities when they make it their own. So what is the definition the Naro people use?

“Sonkori,” which means dreams.

The San have contributed much more innovation than the world usually gives them credit for. Some of the oldest cave paintings are found all over South Africa, and their locations have been deemed World Heritage Sites. More recently, German scientists found herbs like Devil’s Claw and Hoodia used sustainably by the San for generations and was studied, commercialized, and spread worldwide to exponential economic gains. [4]

San communities haven’t been included, or equitably compensated, for their contributions to society. How can global innovation be valuable, if it never benefitted them in the first place?

At the margins, Schumpeter and San definitions are in conflict. Innovation at a global scale doesn’t work for communities like these who have been exploited so the products can gain global traction. However, innovation practice at its best would ensure people like the San are in the room, defining its nature, limits, and outcomes. This isn’t because they have the least, but because their expertise has so diverged from the norm that their perspective has incredible potential to change our world.

Institutions and cultures of innovation must be flipped to include individuals at the margins to be more in control of their own innovative process. Though this, innovators can finally begin to learn how to develop mutually beneficial impact, with those at the margins.

What a dream worth striving for.

What have we learned?

You saw it already. There is no grand unified theory of innovation. It seems as if, design’s limits are as broad as the human imagination. People that proclaim there is only one definition, however, are implicitly silencing those who haven’t had a chance to voice their own.

However, we can learn something about the definition that people decide to use.

The definition changes based on the needs of the community who formed it, and how its outcomes will be used.

This brings us to the final question: How can we reconcile the differences?

“However, the participants, who increasingly come from diverse professions and academic disciplines, are not drawn together because they share a common definition of design; a common methodology, a common philosophy, or even a common set of objects to which everyone agrees that the term “design” should be applied.

They are drawn together because they share a mutual interest in a common theme: the conception and planning of the artificial.” [5]

It’s both empowering and exhausting to think about the foundations we stand on. What I love about innovation, though, is how it motivates us to continue making those foundations for the future we’ll never see.

Why should you? Your legacy? To give voice to the oppressed? To shift the state of society?

You should probably find your own definition.

I deeply appreciate you making it this far.

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[1] Avle, Seyram, Silvia Lindtner, and Kaiton Williams. “How methods make designers.” Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2017.

[2] Juma, Calestous. “Complexity, innovation, and development: Schumpeter revisited.” Policy and Complex System 1.1 (2014).

[3] Gordon, Pierce Edward Cornelius. Investigating Innovation Practice: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in International Development. Diss. UC Berkeley, 2018.

[4] Grote, K, “The increased harvest and trade of Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) and its impacts on the peoples and environment of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa,” Italy: Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species, 2003.

[5] Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked problems in design thinking.” Design issues 8.2 (1992): 5–21.

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