What constitutes an innovation?

Conceptualization of a mobile telephone made on a napkin by two engineers from Ericsson. According to the photographer this sketch gave birth to three different models.

An idea, an invention, a patent and an innovation are not the same thing. An innovation is an idea that has been successful. Not all ideas or inventions are successful. Many patents do not lead to success, while there are many successful ideas or innovations that cannot be protected by patents.

An innovation such as the transistor constitutes a breakthrough and is a radical innovation, while a screwdriver with a better handle is a smaller innovation, which is sometimes labeled incremental and considered a small step. A car or a transistor is a product, while making steel or paper requires a process, meaning that a new one constitutes a process innovation. A TV receiver is not particularly interesting unless there are TV programs to receive and transmitters to send them. These components are related in an innovation system, just like cars, roads and gas stations.

A system innovation is a new and original combination of components that may all have existed previously. The smart thing about a computer is that it can be programmed. It consists of a central unit responsible for computing, several types of memory and, of course, several communications channels for such external devices as a keyboard, a display, a printer and possibly a modem.

A telephone station and a small telephone switch can also constitute a system innovation. This was the case with AXE. Whereas older stations were limited in function, an electronic telephone station is like a computer in that it can be programmed. The design of the AXE system includes an ingenious modular approach that allows work to be shared by different types of processors. Once a system design has been chosen, it is difficult to change the fundamental principles at a later stage.

Studies show that innovations at the system level have a greater chance of being truly successful than even the most dramatic improvements of individual system components. Systems in which great effort has been devoted to achieving a breakthrough for a specific component often take second place to designs in which the system has been constructed in a well-conceived manner that takes into consideration the capacity and limitations of all components and functions. If the system is innovative and well-conceived, however, it naturally doesn’t hurt if key components are improved.

Author: Bengt-Arne Vedin


Alexander Graham Bell (portrait, 19th cent.)

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