What is innovation, and why do we need it?

> PUBLISHED April 22, 2016

Unfortunately it’s not something that just happens naturally… and we’re not very good at it in Newfoundland and Labrador

On a monthly basis, the nlpost will be exploring innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador. We will highlight local examples of it, investigate ideas on how to facilitate it, and identify the barriers it faces.

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But what really is innovation, and why is it important?

Innovation is a slippery word in that it is used in broad strokes and is defined in different ways by different people. Luckily, Wikipedia (via the Journal of Education for Business) sums it nicely, and concisely: “Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs”.

The word ‘innovation’ is often confused with ‘invention’. Hearing the word, many think of a group of folks wearing white coats in a lab creating a brand new piece of technology. While the mad scientists and their work are an aspect of innovation, that is the extreme case.

The majority of innovation is in fact much more practical. It can be a new product, service, process, or market in relation to a business environment. So while the creation of a brand new piece of technology is indeed innovation, so are these examples:

  • A landscaper discovers that the excess materials from her work are ideal for trail developments, opening up a new line of services for her company;
  • A restaurant owner realizes he could make more profit with faster turnover. He investigates and implements a new kitchen layout which increases speed and efficiency;
  • A fish processor preserves its catch using a new herbal method, which appeals to and opens up an entirely new market for the product;
  • A car dealership tries a new cleaning product, reducing costs, increasing effectiveness, and displacing chemicals harmful to employees and the environment;
  • A homebuilder employs a thumb guard, usually used by baseball players, and discovers he can hammer twice as fast as he is now without fear of hitting his thumb.

Sometimes in innovation, the idea or product might not necessarily be new, but its application is. And sometimes the idea and its application might exist, but are new to a region or a business; if Tanzania creates a new method for managing glass bottle and container waste, its introduction in Newfoundland and Labrador can still be considered innovative.

So why is supporting innovation something we should concern ourselves with?

Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs

Innovation is an important factor in improving the productivity of a business. In an increasingly competitive international marketplace, new ideas – which either yield incremental improvements or major growth opportunities – keep firms on par (or better) in relation to their competition. On a regional or sector level, innovative capacity thus has an impact on economic development, job growth, and ultimately quality of life.

Specific to Newfoundland and Labrador, innovation is simply a requirement to find solutions to the challenges we face. How can we effectively provide services, such as health, water, and education, to a population that is small yet scattered over a large geography? How do we deal with waste streams when we don’t produce enough to for existing solutions to be economical, and our distance to larger markets makes shipping expensive? How can we drive economic growth and maintain our quality of life when our population is aging so fast?

How do we achieve these things when we are facing such huge public provincial deficits?

Choosing to innovate and find new solutions to our challenges here in Newfoundland and Labrador is the difference between creating something we can sell to the world or simply paying to import.

Ultimately, when we talk about the need to diversify our province’s economy, innovation is a key consideration. Unfortunately innovation is not something that just happens naturally and, as it turns out, we’re not very good at it in NL.

This past Fall the Conference Board of Canada gave the province a ‘D’ grade in innovation performance, ranking it 22nd among 26 ranked jurisdictions. We performed poorly on business enterprise research and development, researchers engaged in R&D (including researchers employed in business, higher education and government), and patents filed – all indicators of an economy’s innovative activity.

It is clear that we need to support our business community in understanding what innovation is, its importance, and how to pursue or facilitate it. But how? How do we help create new networks, build new relationships, and foster new business cultures?

Every 28 to 31 days the nlpost will reach out to experts in the field of innovation to propose answers to some of these questions and more. Stay tuned.

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