Innovation Letters

Meaning of innovation – a timeline

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Innovation has become somewhat of a buzzword in business these days and one would think that it’s just a modern concept. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as it’s been around for centuries – even if its meaning has evolved with the times.

Innovation Letters

Regardless, here is a quick and easy bullet list on the evolution of the meaning of innovation:

13th Century – The word “novation” first appeared in law texts as a term for renewing contracts, rather than a word for creation – it referred to something new instead.

16th and 17th Centuries – During this period in Europe, the word innovation was considered evil, due to religious reasons as doctrinal innovation was anathema. The reason was because it was associated with Puritanism or even popery. There was a particularly extreme case in 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, published pamphlets advocating against church officials as innovators, quoting Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: “My Sonne, feare thou the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change“. In the end, he ended up being accused himself of being an “innovator” and sentenced to prison for life and to lose his ears.

19th Century – It was only by this time that innovation began its association with science and industry, as the Industrial Revolution marched forward into History. At this time, the main focus of the word was invention, notably technical invention.

1939 – Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter was a pioneer in introducing innovation into economic studies and popularised the concept almost as we know it today. He offered a new definition of innovation as an act of intellectual creativity undertaken without any thought given to its possible economic. Innovation then happens when firms discover how to introduce inventions into positive changes in their business model.

1950s until 1980s – During this time span innovation as mainly seen as a process: theory research in labs were the basis, whose applications then had to be devised and developed and from there, became commercial products. Innovation was deemed a packaged and predictable research product – the growing understanding of which influenced a correspondent increase in government funding for such projects.

Using Google’s useful Ngram database of word use shows that not only is “innovation” suddenly a bigger deal than “invention,” but also total mentions have reached an all-time high.

Google Ngram Viewer

The reason for this, may well be the increase in all the lists of “best innovators” or “most disruptive innovators” and the fact that “lack of innovation” is a real issue affecting today’s businesses.

Idea management is part of the broader innovation concept in organisations. Find out more about it from our Beginner’s Guide to Idea Management.

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