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Capital Business | Perspective

It's time to broaden our definition of innovation

By Jonathan Aberman

July 24, 2017 at 7:00 AM

To grow our economy, we need to stop unicorn hunting, and reset why innovation matters. We must give "innovation" back its broader meaning.

Today, many people think of innovation only as the creation of a new commercial product suffused with advanced technology. This narrow view of innovation describes the software services created for consumers by Silicon Valley, proposals to mine the moon or efforts to create genetically modified bacteria that will trap greenhouse gasses and combat climate change. It's a very exciting way to describe innovation, because those that succeed in it become stupendously wealthy and such innovations have a profound effect upon the economy.

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Aberman)

But here's the problem. As important as advanced technology innovation is, its rewards are not distributed evenly. Not every region in the United States has what it takes to be a technology innovation hub like Silicon Valley, and not every U.S. worker currently can get a high-paying, secure technology job working at Google. But these regions and workers still have untapped capacity to be part of the innovation economy, once we open our eyes and our minds.

A limited definition of innovation obscures the broader potential of our regions and people. It prevents us from seeing clearly the positive attributes that a locality may have to support innovative behavior and the potential of the people that live there. We must celebrate and support innovation of all types.

Innovation is one of the most personally satisfying things a person can do. Innovation is the output of four drivers of human behavior: curiosity, creativity, empathy and satisfaction. As I discussed in last week's column, all humans are curious and wired to wonder about their surroundings and place in the world. Humans use creativity to figure out how to satisfy their curiosity. They then use empathy to figure out how to encourage others to provide resources to meet shared goals. Lastly, they achieve satisfaction when curiosity, creativity, and empathy are harnessed to deliver an innovation that others care about. Simply put, successful innovative behavior makes people happy and creates new things others care about.

The tying of innovation and new business growth naturally follows. Innovation is the process of creating new things that people care about – business is the way we give it to them. Frame innovation in this way and you can see how much it contributes to the tapestry of our society and our economy.

It is essential that our discussions about innovation acknowledge that it is a fundamental behavior that drives our economy. If we broaden our view of innovation to define it as the activity of making a positive difference and creating something others will value, you will quickly find that it innovation occurs in many places. Regions other than Silicon Valley can see themselves as innovative by celebrating the particular flavor and achievements of people that live there and the businesses they grow. The individuals living there will gain greater satisfaction and be more likely to act as entrepreneurs if they feel that their achievements are respected.

It is good economic policy for all of us to embrace and celebrate innovation as broadly as possible. This will allow us to tailor approaches to support innovation to the particular attributes a region has, rather than looking to emulate another location.

Most importantly, it will encourage people to think of themselves as innovators to empower them to participate in a dynamic economy, an economy that changes because of them, and not without them.

Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of "What's Working in Washington" on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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