Innovation. What do you mean?
“Innovation is the key.”
We are hearing these words of wisdom all the time, aren’t we?
And we nod our heads in agreement, remembering our pocket computers and communication devices that we still call phones. Or how the 3D technology and programs of North Carolina-based Geomagic make possible the on-demand manufacture one-of-a kind products based on the special 3D design plans from Geomagic’s software.
But does the word have meaning to us ordinary humans who are not geniuses like Apple’s Steve Jobs or Geomagic’s Ping Fu?
At a recent discussion on innovation at the AdvantageWest Economic Summit in Asheville, I asked panelists to explain what innovation means and to illustrate with an example.
Their varied answers helped me understand that there is a place for innovation in almost every workplace.
Mike Adams, president of Moog Music Inc.— the high tech manufacturer of the Moog music synthesizers, noted the innovations that had swept by in his lifetime in rapid long distance communication: Telephone and telegraph replaced mail, which was replaced by telex, which was replaced by fax, which is being replaced by emails, which are being replaced by a variety of innovations. “I try to think like a 12-year-old. They are thinking, what’s next?”
For Anita Brown-Graham, director of North Carolina’s Institute for Emerging Issues in Raleigh, innovation is not so much about mere good ideas. An innovation to her is an idea that can be applied to meet an unmet need.
Brown-Graham described a teacher in Chapel Hill who found it hard to get her students’ attention after lunch. But if she let them first go to the playground, they came back refreshed and alert. The teacher wanted to give her students stimulating exercise. She also wanted to preserve serious class time. By innovating, she did both. She recorded her lectures for the post-lunch class, gave each kid a listening device, and took them for a 35-minute walk while they heard her recording. Her innovation met her need. It is also meeting the needs of other teachers through The Walking Classroom program that makes available a WalkKit listening product preloaded with a year’s worth of lectures.
Brown-Graham is optimistic about the innovation capabilities of the generation just entering college. They are risk takers and programmed to be innovators. However, they don’t have the support networks, experience in small business, or the financing to make their innovations a business success.
Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden Leaf Foundation, agreed and emphasized the need for sources of funding for the effective use of innovations in a commercial context.
Gerlach described an unusual innovation in the location and construction of a wave-making machine in the Nantahala River in Swain County. That innovative idea, when brought to reality, drew thousands of people to the region for this year’s Freestyle Kayaking World Cup Championship.
Charlotte’s Mark Erwin, former U.S. ambassador to Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa, used that country as an example of innovation. In 1976, when the island gained its independence, it was one of the poorest countries in the world, almost totally dependent on a sugar plantation economy. When the new leader took an economic inventory of his country, he found there was almost nothing, only 1.3 million mostly uneducated people. Since the populace was the country’s only resource, the leader declared that education would be free for everyone.
“That was innovation,” said Erwin. “Today it is the most prosperous country in Africa, with the highest literacy rate, a huge Information Technology center, much tourism, and a thriving textile industry.”
These different examples of innovation suggest that, since there are an untold number of unmet needs, there are an equal number of opportunities for innovation. Just waiting for some of us to develop.