Innovation Science: There’s a method to that light bulb going off in your head
Innovation is a fountain of economic growth and prosperity. It’s the source of leadership in many arenas and the way you make an impact. In industry, innovation drives competitive advantage. In academia, it’s a basis of thought leadership and scholarly excellence. In the nonprofit sector, it holds the key to sustainable solutions to intractable problems, often referred to as Grand Challenges. Today, innovating is no longer simply an aspiration — it is an imperative.
That’s especially true right now. Innovation holds the key to the battle against COVID-19 through our ability to come up with remedies across fields like science, statistics, engineering, manufacturing, and social policy to counter the pandemic that has swept across the world.
But innovation is hard. For routine product launches in the corporate sector, a recent peer-reviewed study indicates that as few as 35 percent of innovations succeed. When the innovation efforts are bolder, the statistics become even more dire — venture capitalists, regarded as experts in their fields, are rarely successful more than 1 in 4 times. And the odds of translating an idea into a billion-dollar business? One in 20,000!
However, these statistics do not take into account emerging evidence that there’s a method to the madness — deep patterns to innovation, now coming to light as our understanding of innovation shifts along a spectrum from serendipity to science. Innovation is now being seen as not only originality and creativity in thinking but also as a discipline, with identifiable patterns, in which a practitioner can learn to recognize and routinely employ best practices that increase the likelihood of achieving a high-impact outcome.
Innovation has been a scholarly pursuit for more than 100 years, with significant work carried out to understand various patterns. Engineering has made strides in comprehending technology development and process innovation. The pure and applied sciences have provided an understanding of processes of discovery and scientific revolution, and, of course, realized innovations in their own right. Management scientists have developed many innovation models, such as the notions of incremental and radical, disruptive and sustaining, competence enhancing and competence destroying, and enabling and progressive innovation.
Yet more needs to be done to deconstruct the act of innovating. While some people will display extraordinary ability to innovate, many aspects of innovative thought and action can be observed and taught. This can build the base skills of the broader population and enhance the capabilities of organizations — many of which, from national and state governments to the private sector, have leaders who focus on innovation, with titles including Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, or Chief Innovation Officer.
At Purdue, we are taking on this challenge by investigating and developing the research-derived foundations of Innovation Science to foster a community of collaborating scholars and practitioners, both within and outside the academy. Our vision is to bring order to the innovation space, and integrate related insights across disciplines through research that is anchored, at least initially, in the linkage between innovation and impact-oriented design.
The design process dovetails with innovation in the way it provides a logical bridge from problem identification and framing to solution and impact. Using design as a foundation, we are framing the study of innovation as the exploration of a generalizable approach to problem solving that can be broadly employed regardless of domain — much like the scientific method.
Innovation Science, built around design, embraces insights from such fields of inquiry as strategy, economics, entrepreneurship, systems-of-systems, design, policy, anthropology, sociology, complexity, education, engineering education, engineering, technology and technology history. The value of these cross-field connections is well-recognized and is captured in the concept of convergence put forward by the National Science Foundation.
Design has classically been expressed as a goal-oriented activity that progresses from identifying a problem to developing and deploying a solution. But work on high-impact design has revealed that achieving non-incremental outcomes — to lead through innovation — may require design that more holistically (convergently) explores linkages between problem and solution, and exploits multifaceted perspectives of a functional, social and emotional nature.
Building these perspectives through Innovation Science can facilitate the convergence that addresses complex, multidiscipline problems. This can establish a problem-solving language that lets different disciplines interact and more effectively engage, and offers a way to characterize different classes of problems and the methods and solutions that achieve impact.
The study of high-impact design has illustrated that each stage of the design activity is associated with specific actions that can help an innovator depart from the norm, with impact as an end goal. These behaviors draw upon insights gleaned from multiple fields — a scaffold upon which to connect perspectives from diverse schools of thought during the innovation process and foster improved outcomes by enhancing the innovator’s intent and practices.
Innovation Science could bridge the gap between discovery and application and be a valuable contributor to society. A repeatable, scalable, teachable understanding of innovation is a catalyst of insight, a source of leadership, and an engine of growth — in short, a driver of impact.
Those who lead in Innovation Science will likely lead the world.
Director of the College of Engineering Innovation and Leadership Studies Program
Professor of Civil Engineering
Lyles School of Civil Engineering
College of Engineering, Purdue University