It was a cold night but warm as toast inside the old furniture factory – a most unlikely venue that almost defied detection even with my GPS navigator urging me to stop.

You have reached your destination she insisted. I looked around in vain for the alley and eventually spotted a small, barely noticeable dark blue doorway cut into the bricks.  

Within minutes I was sitting at a long redgum table along with nine strangers, eating pizza dished up piping hot from an oven just meters away, fidgeting with small pieces of lego aimed at stimulating the imagination’ and jotting not-so-memorable remarks on the paper table-cloth with an assortment of coloured pens. 

Or at least most of the others were. I just listened, trying not to appear aloof, grumble too much, or bark improprieties as the conversation veered off course and restarted, over and over, in a somewhat arbitrary fashion. This kind of discussion did not auger well for a productive evening, I mused. 

An incongruous assortment of people, we had gathered on that chilly Autumn night to discuss innovation. More explicitly we had been convened with the explicit purpose of giving advice to the state Minister for Innovation and Small Business on where to invest $62 million. Not that the Minister had actually requested our advice, I later discovered. 

As the evening wore on and the conversation became more animated I began to reflect on the futility of the task. For a start we had no working definition of what we meant when we talked about innovation. Was it something entrepreneurs uniquely tackled? Did it require creativity or inspiration? Was it a process, or the outcome of a process? Was it synonymous with continuous improvement? Was money a necessary part of the equation? Did it have anything at all to do with generating value?

To all intents and purposes we were conversing from a platform of wilful ignorance. Not that this deterred us. After all, the extrinsic motive to stay at the table was a steady supply of delicious pizza and wine rather than the topic on everyone’s lips. As the evening wore on we skated across many shiny surfaces. As for conclusions? There were none.

Innovation seems to be a term that defies one single universal definition. It means different things to different people and varies from one situation to another – often quite significantly. 

In the Business Dictionary it is described as the process of translating an original idea or invention into a product or service that creates value, for which customers will pay a premium. Well it is the business dictionary after all! The same source maintains that to qualify as an innovation an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a particular need. Immediately the financial imperative rears its stultifying head yet again, a notion so ingrained that it overwhelms almost all other opinions. 

Can innovation exist in its own right, for example, without the need for a financial return of some kind?

Can innovation result in social or cultural value? Does it require conscious effort? If not could it be art? Or philosophy perhaps?

In Silicon Valley the term innovation has come to mean technological invention. In China it most often refers to political reform, whereas in Japan it means striving for continuous incremental improvement. And at business schools around the world I am convinced it simply means rebranding common sense as novelty. 

In Australian management circles the word came into prominence in the late 1970’s through an influential report published by McKinsey & Co. Using a matrix in which productive value was plotted against the degree of originality, the authors classified three levels of innovation: 

  1. The most elementary level was product innovation – implying improvements to an existing design of a product or service. Originality and value were minimal. 
  2. The second level was process innovation – defined as one or more advances in the quality, cost, or efficiency of an activity needed to produce a product. This level of innovation evidently generated greater value but also required more ingenuity.
  3. The third and most prized level of innovation occurred within the domain of management. Management innovation ranged from improvements to the protocols of managing and organising resources, right the way through to the reinvention of business models.

The McKinsey report was circulated broadly and received widespread acclaim from the Business Council of Australia, peak industry bodies, and both state and federal governments. Innovation was at last identified as a priority in the battle to regain Australia’s competitive standing – a global ranking that had fallen steadily since the early years of the 20th century. 

Grants and investments for innovation increased several fold. At the time this was a huge psychological boost. In conjunction with the deployment of new management methods, like Total Quality Management, for example, it assisted in the revitalisation of workplace productivity besides shining a new spotlight on the conditions needed for industry viability. 

Innovation gave the business community renewed confidence. Happily it also helped address some of the issues of the day, such as the country’s ability to attract and retain skills and expertise, for example, in ways that numerous recommendations in previous reports had failed to do. 

But there were three significant flaws in the entire proposition: 

  • The report assumed, incorrectly, that once defined, innovation would remain a standardised practise
  • It was also blinkered in assuming innovation was vital only in the world of business
  • Unfortunately, even then, the wider world was changing, some technologies and socio-economic systems at an exponential rate. Innovation, too, would need to adapt to dramatically changing circumstances if it was to remain relevant. 

But it did not. And that is why we have a situation in today’s Australia where innovation is lauded yet almost totally misunderstood. It is a nonsense word. At best a political slogan – a misnomer for anything that feels new or that breaks with tradition.

Surely this is pedantic? What does it matter as long as organisations and individuals are focused on inventing with purpose to fulfil a certain need? There lies the enigma. Because today we are overwhelmed by innovations that serve no useful purpose, apart from adding to the pile of stuff we want out of addiction, but do not actually need

The need to transform our thinking regarding all things innovative is belated. So what could innovation mean for us – all of us – in this age of transition between one kind of society and the next?

How can innovation best be used to demonstrate human passion and ingenuity at its finest? The answer is not what you think. Because innovation as currently practised is not the answer.

If we look at the state of our world we can clearly identify systems in various stages of decay. Some are in the process of collapsing – as evidenced in the climate emergency for example. Others have already collapsed and no longer serve humanity as originally intended. An example of the latter would be the coal industry that still haunts us, zombie-like, refusing to die. Another is the industrial agricultural model that has been taken captive by a few multinational corporations that exist only to pursue their own narrow interests.

Within that scorching context the future role of innovation is reinvention and renewal. Renewal of our most life-critical systems – designed in a previous era for a global population of under two billion people. Renewal of our social contract with each other and our precious planet. Renewal of the bond that exists between all living species.

This requires us to shift our thinking about innovation; to focus on a higher purpose. It requires us to think beyond obsolete economic models of growth. It means coming to terms with our sick and immoral fixation on warfare. It obliges us to transcend our manic plundering of native forests and to preserve the wilderness we have not yet destroyed. Above all it requires a shift in resolve to reinvent the worldview that no longer serves the majority of the human family.