Jon Gertner: The meaning of innovation, and why we should care

Guest Column by Jon Gertner.

Here’s a quick question that seems simple but that I think is a lot harder than it looks: What does the word “innovation” mean? Is it the same as invention? Or is it more similar to discovery? We probably know that innovation has something to do with human creativity and usually with new technology. But can innovation just be explained as any kind of creative new thing or idea? Or is it something altogether different?

These days, on the television news or in the business press, we can’t go long before hearing about new, innovative companies. In fact, it’s become a steady drumbeat. We hear about innovative products and innovative “apps” for our smartphones. Or we hear about fantastically innovative people, like the late Steve Jobs, who have earned themselves the honorific of being called innovators. But it can sometimes be difficult to separate truth from hype. What’s more is there seems little doubt that the term innovation now seems to function much like a buzzword: We hear it so often, and apply it so indiscriminately, that we may have only the haziest sense of its definitions. Meanwhile, as the deeper meanings of innovation have become obscured, I’ve often wondered: Does that mean we have lost a sense of what innovation requires, or why it’s so difficult, or why — when it succeeds — it can be so central to our culture and economy?

Throughout the past decade, working as both a magazine journalist and an author, I’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring the meaning and challenges of innovation. Sometimes that has involved reporting long feature stories about how global corporations such as Toyota innovate; other times it has entailed spending time in Silicon Valley, where I’ve had the opportunity to test fast — and innovative — electric cars like the Tesla on Palo Alto’s back roads — one of the better aspects of my job. Also in California, I’ve had the good fortune to travel around asking questions about how a variety of entrepreneurs aim to jump-start a clean energy revolution.

Above all, I’ve delved into history. In the 20th century, there was one organization — Bell Labs — that in many respects towered over the competition when it came to innovation. For about 35 years, from the mid-1940s until the late ’70s, Bell Labs was the world’s most innovative organization, the place that originated virtually all of our modern electronics and communications technologies. Transistors, lasers, cellphones, communication satellites — it all traces back to that big laboratory in New Jersey that had an almost magical knack for nurturing creativity and building world-changing innovations. Indeed, Bell Labs executives sometimes referred to their lab as “an institute of creative technology.” It’s an interesting choice of words, I think. It suggests quite clearly that Bell Labs’ leaders believed that in pushing forward into new realms of knowledge, its employees drew upon talents related to both art and science.

So how did the leadership at Bell Labs define innovation? It was not simply a discovery or an invention. On the contrary, innovation defined the lengthy and wholesale transformation of an idea into a technological product, or process, meant for widespread practical use. Almost by definition, a single person, or even a single group, could not alone create an innovation. The task was too variegated and involved. The innovation process usually involved frustration and failures. It required time, money and sometimes decades of painstaking work. But in the end, a true innovation had scale and impact. It replaced an existing technology with something that was demonstrably better, or cheaper or both.

Of course, that doesn’t explain precisely how innovation happened at Bell Labs. Nor, for that matter, does it explain how the companies that we now think of as America’s most innovative — Apple, Google and the like — create new ideas and deploy them to society. At my talk today, I’ll discuss the various meanings of innovation and tell several innovation stories that shed some light on the methods and approaches of successful innovators.

But I’ll talk about something else, too. Suppose you’re not an engineer. Suppose, even, that you’re an avowed technophobe who can barely send an email. Why care about Bell Labs or the pursuit of innovation? For me, the answer is fairly straightforward. We devour books about social history, military history and political history. But I’d argue that technological and industrial history are every bit as important and exciting. Technological revolutions change our world as much as cultural and political upheavals; they create new industries, new societies and tens of millions of jobs. In fact, much of our modern economy is rooted in Bell Labs innovations from the 1940s and ’50s. Without the transistor, for instance, which was first created there in 1947 and is the fundamental building block of all digital products, we would live in a very different world.

“The history of modernization is in essence a history of scientific and technological progress,” Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, said a few years ago. “Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries and the rise and fall of nations.”

I find it hard to disagree. To think deeply about innovation — to ponder the creative, financial and social forces behind it — is to think deeply about the great imaginative challenges it entails and the great accomplishments it signifies. Here in the U.S., we owe our present day economy, and our impressive standard of living, to the innovators of our past. Almost certainly we’ll owe our future, and our children’s futures, to the innovators of today.

Jon Gertner is the author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.