Have we misunderstood what innovation really is?

Updated: May 10, 2019

Have you noticed how often, in our industry, we are consumed by the need to start afresh in lieu of focusing on optimising that which we already have? Partly, it’s due to our agency business model - but it’s also due to a misinterpretation of the term “innovation”. Have we got it all wrong?

Our teams spend hours pouring over Kickstarter apps and the most-recent technological inventions in the search for something new and “innovative” upon which we can build our “next big idea”. The reality is, however, that the old may, so often, actually be the new.


It’s worth remembering that much of the world’s wisdom is captured within history, recent or distant. Yet, for some reason, we continually feel the need to reinvent and start again. While new invention has its place of course, I wonder whether our fast-paced world, and even faster-paced egos, are too keen to discover the new and shiny without spending time to learn from the past — and, in doing so, whether we have confused the definition (and role) of innovation altogether?

As an industry, should we not be focusing more of our energy into ‘alteration’ and ‘transformation’ as paths to innovating? If you look it up on Wikipedia today, it will tell you that innovation is “a new idea, device or process” but I disagree. Surely innovation should be deeply based in looking at the realities and activities of today, and yesterday, and building on them to re-fit a brand-new purpose or utility? Otherwise haven’t we wasted all the energy that came before?

When you look at it, true innovation is nearly always alteration and not total reinvention. Given humans have survived in society for 200 000 years or so, surely innovation needs to start by not blindly (and arrogantly) ignoring the past, but building from it to better survive and thrive today?

At its core, all innovation is something that is done by people for other people, with a noble goal to make their lives better. All other facets — ’new technologies’ and ‘technological reforms’ — should be secondary to achieving this goal. The successes to date in leveraging existing tech and making it great — truly making the ‘old’ new again — proves that the opportunities to do so are endless. As agencies, let’s embrace this and, occasionally, remember to look backwards, to move forwards, fast.

- Mimi Nicklin @miminicklin

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