Innovation is an illusion

Here is a good thought experiment:

  1. Consider the last time you walked into a convenience store .
  2. Perhaps you grabbed a snack, waited in line to pay, and left.
  3. Did anything in the experience seem interesting? Probably not.

Now magically transport that same little convenience store to a poor shanty town in Ethiopia or India, where there’s extreme poverty.

Suddenly that same convenience store is an oasis of innovation.

It has many world changing breakthroughs: fresh water, electricity, working toilets, air conditioning, cold drinks and stockpiles of food. There are magazines to learn from and basic medicines to use. Their lives would be instantly transformed by access to such things.

The big question: How can the same technology be a breakthrough in one place, and meaningless in another?

The only answer is that the true deciding factor for whether something is innovative or not is not in the technology itself, but in the point of view of the person using it.  Innovation is not a static quality, but a relative one. Innovation is a matter of perception relative to where you are and what you have.

William Gibson said “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” but there’s more to it than that. The value of any idea or invention is variable, not static. And it varies not only through time but from person to person. It can also move backwards and forwards, as organic food is now seen as an innovation, but yet before 1950 that’s all there was in the world.

12 Responses to “Innovation is an illusion”

  1. Tim Meaney

    Very keen thought. “Innovation” isn’t absolute, but relative.

    This reminded me of something I once wrote that compares innovation to evolution. In a biological evolutionary process, mutations aren’t “good” or “bad”, they only have value when you view it in their environment: which is evolutionary fitness. Ideas are the same way, they are only “good” or “bad” (read: innovative) when there’s fitness with the environment.

    Your example is another way of describing the fitness of a particular environment for innovation.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Tim: absolutely. Fit to environment is exactly what I’m talking about.

      There are many fun comparisons between ideas and biology.

  2. Martin Unsal

    It’s a good point but I would draw a different lesson. Innovation is not relative to its surroundings — our perception of innovation is relative to our past experience.

    The only thing that is actually innovative about the convenience store in Ethiopa is its business model. Its customers may be surprised and think they are seeing new innovations but they are really seeing old innovations with which they are not yet familiar.

    If you call air conditioning in Ethiopia an innovation, I think you are redefinining the word “innovation” to mean something completely different and less useful than the way I understand it.

    Innovation implies uniqueness. Almost everything aspect of our lives was once an innovation, but after that, it can never be an innovation again. Putting it in a new place does not re-innovate it.

    1. Scott Berkun

      “Putting it in a new place does not re-innovate it.”

      Perhaps in concept, but not in practice. Many ideas and inventions are created, then lost, then rediscovered, but they’re rediscovered in (willful) ignorance of what happened before (as they’re easier to market as “breakthrough!” than as “here’s this old idea we’re reusing”).

      Consider frozen food. It was heralded as an innovation in the 1950s and 60s, but native people had been freezing food for centuries. Was it only an innovation for the natives, or only for the manufactured frozen foods in the 1950s? Both?

      The larger point I hoped to make was the unavoidable relativism of evaluating any idea.

  3. Matt Currie

    Agree with the general precept that whether something is innovative or not is a matter of human perception – influenced by world view, past experience et al. And I think this is why it is more useful to focus on solving a problem for people, or helping people seize an opportunity, than on “innovating”.

  4. Warwick Absolon


    Great thoughts. As an innovation manager for a global engineering and design firm, I encourage people to have a crack! I encourage people to think that maybe, just maybe their good design, good outcome is just, shock, horror innovation. Who would think engineers are innovative?! Your story is a great one – what one client thinks is business as usual, the next client will be blown away by how progressive our solution is. Well done.

  5. Karim

    Innovation is not the same as invention. Innovation is the delivery of something better (or best). The invention of cold drinks dispensers is not the innovation as you say. but the innovation is not an illusion, the innovation is in the delivery. It’s in the provision of cold drinks in a difficult/disadvantaged environment.

    In a similar vein, Amazon didn’t have to invent books to be innovative, which it achieved through improving delivery.

    The confusion of innovation with the need to invent is one of the biggest barriers to innovation itself.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks for noting the distinction, I’m familiar with it can be useful. In other situations it’s less useful.

      By your definition, In these examples the inventions (air conditioning) are innovations more than once, for in each culture there is an opportunity to provide something better with the same invention.

      And if you imagine a dark age where the invention is lost and then reinvented, the same idea can be invented, and be an innovation, multiple times in the same culture.

  6. Ben Tremblay

    Nice … breaks into the idea of relativity. (What I’m getting at: it isn’t absolutely true. The first transistor was the first. It wasn’t found in some obscure corner.)

  7. Arnab Sinha

    Innovation is bringing the new into this world..the word “World” is important here…Innovation is something that has never happened before..what the post says is about “learning”.

    Computers were invented in the US, but we also have started manufacturing them in India. This is technology transfer or learning.
    In India the experience may be new, but this is in no way innovation. You cannot say that computers were Invented anywhere else in the world, other than the US.

    I feel, One cannot Innovate, but INNOVATION HAPPENS. It happens when the old has been cleared and and we have made space for the new to fill it up. We cannot imagine the new. The new, again, comes. All imaginations are of the past. You cannot imagine your way to innovation or creation. I again say..”Creation or Innovation Happens”.

    Tell me have you ever been able to imagine anything that is not a part of you knowledge. All your imagination is knowledge and knowledge is old. So you cannot use knowledge for innovation.

    Innovation that is not a part of your knowledge is Divine and that is real innovation.



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