Innovation: Opportunity or Abyss?

There is an interesting post on the Innovation Policy Blog.  In this post they echo and comment on many of the statements from the President's State of the Union address about the need to invest in innovation.  I agree with most of these statements, but like many ideas I hear about innovation, they are "correct but insufficient" to truly encourage American innovation.

Why? First, they make some fairly explicit assumptions that innovation is synonymous with explorations in science and technology.  Granted, the group that supports the blog is the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, but I feel that these assumptions define innovation too narrowly.  This can lead to a misunderstanding of innovation by the people needed to support the right innovation policies.  I would not expect politicians to understand all the details involved to realize the greatest value from innovation.  It is our job to present the issues so that the right decisions will be made.

Second, it talks about funding scientific exploration without much discussion of what the goals of the exploration would be, or how progress would be measured.  While the blog is supposedly non-partisan, framing the issue in this way will probably scare anyone who thinks we need better controls on government spending.  These same people would most likely invest in sound propositions with a likelyhood of a positive return.

If it were up to me, I would reframe this discussion.  The way it is presented, spending on innovation could easily be perceived as throwing money into a deep abyss that would create a scientific playground without much value coming from it.  Instead, there is an opportunity to discuss the fact that there is much more to innovation than scientific skunkworks.  From my experience, there are many areas of innovation that would benefit from increased funding.  Here's a short list:

  • When working in innovation, it's important to understand that there are right answers and wrong answers.  Often there is more than one right answer, and that can confuse people into thinking that anything new is good.  The rest of the list is based on this understanding.
  • Some people are better at the cognitive skills necessary for innovation. They are inherently better at recognizing right from wrong answers when presented with new ideas.  This skill needs to be better understood and developed.  I see at as having similar to having aptitude toward math, art, science, etc.
  • There are ways to make sure we are solving the right problem before we start offering solutions.  No matter how "new", "innovative", or "different" an idea is, if it doesn't solve a necessary problem, it's not a necessary solution.
  • There are ways to assess the viability of new ideas in context before investing in development. Even those who are the best will benefit from evaluating and improving ideas before they are developed. This helps to develop financial projections so development dollars are channeled to the right places.
  • We can create metrics to evaluate innovation performance. They will be different from measures currently used to evaluate performance on known initiatives.
  • There are ways to make the logic behind a new idea more transparent.  This helps those who are not as skilled to make better downstream decisions during development.

These are topics that have evolved from my years of working in the innovation space, and they are the focus of my current research. I would hate to think they wouldn't get funded because they would not fit under the heading "scientific exploration".  It's time to elevate the general comprehension of innovation.  While I absolutely do not believe that every dollar spent needs to have a specific return identified before starting (then it wouldn't be innovation after all), I do not believe that just throwing money at "exploration" will be very useful in the long run either.

I hope I read the blog post too literally.  I hope that everything I've talked about is embedded in the agenda to "invest in innovation".  However, based on what I hear I'm not sure it is.  Any ideas for what we can do to to get more money spent, in the right ways, and on the right things to ensure that investment in innovation is a true opportunity and not an abyss?