Over-used, over-hyped, misunderstood, and much maligned – the word ‘innovation’ often gets a bit of a rough ride in the media. Part of the problem is that the word’s literal meaning ‘to bring in a new idea’ is very broad, and depends very much on the context into which a new idea is brought. The conceptual novelty of innovation differentiates it from the mere renewal of old stuff or ‘renovation’. And as I am often reminded by my patent attorney, innovation or novelty alone is not the same as invention which requires a non-obvious connection, an inventive step. If I repaint my front room, I am renovating. If I use a robot to repaint my front room I am innovating. If I design the first robot that can paint rooms, I am inventing.
Of course, technology innovation is only one type of innovation. Innovation in the arts, in fashion, in media, in politics, and even in religion is possible – any field of human activity or thought in which an old idea can be displaced by, or incorporated into, a new one has the capacity for innovation (Whether there is an appetite for such innovation is another story).
But technology innovation is different, because both supply and demand for this type of innovation are accelerating. Population and economic growth, demographic change, resource scarcity and climate change each present major challenges, and create the demand for new approaches and ideas that technology innovators are racing to come up with. On the supply side, rapid progress across many disparate fields of science and engineering in the past few decades has created and proven a vast array of new materials, equipment, information and method/process technologies. Technology innovators can pick and chose from this body of ideas to create valuable new products and services, and as the library of proven technology inventions generated by research and development expands, the potential for technology innovation grows exponentially. For the technology innovator, this poses a number of key questions, for example:
- Is there a way to combine a selection of these technologies to meet an unmet market need?
- How do I discover and select the best of each of the technology elements I need?
- Are the technology elements all proven, are some still in their infancy?
- Are there any gaps where I need to invent something myself?
- Will anything unexpectedly bad (or good) happen when I combine these?
- Do the benefits outweigh the costs and risks, i.e. does this solution create value?
The connectivity and reach provided by the internet has slashed the information costs of answering these questions. It has helped researchers disseminate information about their technology’s progress and performance in current applications, and has helped innovators reach out beyond their own industries for the technology elements they need to create the products and services of the future.
For clean technology entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to innovate.
Sam Cockerill is CEO of Libertine FPE Limited, developing “Linear Power System” technologies that will make decentralised power generation the norm – bringing clean, reliable and affordable power to wherever it is needed. Sam is currently in San Francisco along with fourteen other UK cleantech start-ups as part of the Clean and Cool Mission 2015. This week-long trip is an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to hone their business pitches, learn from leaders in the field, and talk about their amazing products to potential investors and partners. Clean and Cool 2015 is organised by Innovate UK, together with The Long Run Venture, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) and CoSpA (the Co-Sponsorship Agency). You can follow the progress of the Mission on Twitter@innovateukmedia,@CleanandCool and #cleansf.