Defining Innovation: Some “innoflating” considerations..

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Update: This also published on

This article was “provoked” by discussions with delacroixjacques on his blog “FactsMatter”, after he wrote   Challenges from Social-Democrat Denmark  

I’d like to make one thing clear: Politically, I am a Social-Liberal, – (“Liberal”, as in Libertarian, mind you !)  – and that is important to keep in mind if you wish to understand the following “considerations”. Being a Social-Liberal, I have a positive attitude to both innovation as it is perceived by most: technological innovation, and social innovation, apparently, to most, of secondary importance..

In discussions with my Leftist /Liberal – “Occupy Anywhere”.. friends, I very often get annoyed with their narrow-minded hostility towards what they call Big Business, which they see as almost exclusively cynical, egotistic, profit-only oriented, etc. – To a certain extent they are right, but there is just soo.. much prejudice also.. – Call it the hippie-mindset if you like..

On the other hand, whenever I talk to more Conservative types, – rightists if you like, I get annoyed with their lack of respect for anything that begins with Social.. – Again, they are right up to a point, but blind to so much positive going on also.
In conclusion, I am critical of both “Leftist sissies” and “Rightwing nutjobs”, and my aim is to get people to understand that technological as well as Social innovations are essential tools for human progress. One day “light-bulb”,  Revolution the next, and how exactly are we to say what is the more innovative..

Whenever we discuss who / which nation(s) are the most innovative, we should first of all make sure we are talking about the same thing, i.e. are we evaluating  innovation in a broader sense, or are we talking about technological innovation only.

Here’s what I”ve written so far then, – think of it as no more than a draft..

Ask Google how many hits were received for the word “innovation” over the past twelve months, the answer is… billions.
Innovation.. is a hyped word, and a witty person has jokingly suggested it  be spelled innoflation

This article will innoflate it even more..

InnovationSpend 5 min. looking up it’s meaning, and you will immediatly notice it is filled with corporate lingo. No wonder, as the majority of innovations and also innovation policy recommendations first and foremost focus on market success. Subjective well-being (i.e. happiness) is hardly ever considered, – it is secondary at best, and anyone insisting on taking (overall ) well-being into account, risk being perceived as a leftwing sissy..

As it turns out, all this is going through a process of renewal and change , but.. wait a second.. isn’t renewal and change the very essence of  innovation..

One reason why I decided to write this, is the following words, below, from Dr. Jacques Delacroix, a retired Stanford Sociologist. They were some of his concluding remarks, after I had suggested that even underground power grid cables should qualify as an innovation, in accordance with a broader definition, such as: “Anything contributing to overall well-being“.

I am left with the impression that you have been so neutered by statism that you have lost even the ability to think of the concept of innovation”   

Now, – not wanting to leave him with such a negative impression, I am doing just that: Thinking about the concept of innovation, and I have, of course, also been reading bits and pieces.. , but let us first consider the literal meaning:

Word Origin & History: innovate: 1548, from L. innovatus, pp. of innovare “to renew or change (ref.)

How about Revolutions, – do they qualify ?..

A broad definition of Innovation that all could agree on might be: “a novel invention that produces value“.

Given the above definition,  the most important  inventions  people would probably mention, if asked, are.. the Internet, Electricity, Computers.. – Some might suggest vaccines or anti-biotics, – could be, for instance, people working for pharmaceutical companies…

And what comes to most people’s minds when hearing the word “value” ? –   $$$, – no doubt !

As a self-defined Transhumanist and Techno-progressive, I am deeply interested in, and fascinated by, the newest technological -( in it’s widest sense) –  inventions, so I have no objections as such to this focus on technology, but I am even more interested, or concerned, rather, about the ethical aspects. – Thing is, techno-progressiveness is not an end in itself, but a means, for achieving well-being, longevity, – and, who knows.. Utopia.., not for the few, but for ALL.

It seems more than reasonable, therefore, to expand the way most of us perceive innovation, and here I mean not only the “products” of innovation, but very much also the way “value” is measured. “Products” could be “anything contributing to progress and overall well-being”, and GNH – Gross National Happiness – could, if not replace, then supplement GNP as a way to measure “value”.


Now, judging from the “bits and pieces” I’ve read, there is indeed renewal and change in the way we think about innovation:

“We’re about to enter a new economy, one in which the act of social invention (a broader application of the notion of entrepreneurship) will become as normal as the introduction of new products. At first, this will seem disorientating, but our grandkids will think it is normal. It will be a period of unprecedented prosperity and individual freedom“.

(Others, however, suggest the  hype and buzz today is already more about social entrepreneurship.., but what do I know..)

Social invention ? – Ah, but of course, – and technological inventions most likely began out of  necessity to solve Social problems – (survival..) in the first place..

Today, – as in times past I guess.., – technological inventions cause as many problems as they solve, – and there’s a lot to suggest that overall wellbeing has not really improved, – think obesity, anti-depressant drugs.. continue the list yourself if you want..

The cost of such unwell-being is approximately 4% of European GDP..

Now compare that to an often cited goal of the European Commission: to spend 3 % on science and technology… – and I shoud think you can see the irony ?


All in all, I whole-heartedly agree with the following statement: Social innovations are sorely needed to address a series of complex and challenging social problems”

According to Stanford University’s definition, Social innovation is: “A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions”

Now, in the real world, what could that be.. – How about..

1. Microfinance

– the quintessential social innovation: microfinance — the provision of loans, savings, insurance, and other financial services to poor people who lack access to the conventional financial system. Microfinance combats the widespread and intractable problem of poverty.

[In 2006, the Norwegian Nobel Committee split the Nobel Peace Prize evenly between Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank—the pioneers of microfinance. ]

2. Fair Trade – (as opposed to “Free” Trade..)

Value of Fair Trade:  creates tremendous social and environmental value by deploying a host of safeguards, including sustainable agricultural techniques, international certification and labeling, child labor prevention, and fair prices.

Now, – someone might object and say that the above two examples of Social innovation were actually the brainchild of private entrepreneurs and had nothing to do with Big Government, and they’d have a point, but it remains true that these are Social innovations, and I would argue further, that even Democracy is a social invention, what else ?! – Same goes for Revolutions, – in fact I would argue that Revolution =  the quint-essential innovation ! – It could be, say, the French Revolution, the Industrial “Revolution”, – continue the list yourself.
That is not to say all Revolutions qualify as a “contribution to the overall wellbeing”, – good grief NO ! – but that is equally true whether we speak of technological or Social Revolutions..

So how do we determine which nations are the most innovative, understood in it’s broadest sense. It’s not at all easy.. – Say we simply measure a nation’s GNH: The higher GNH, the more innovative.. – Nope, – it is not that simple. In Bhutan, where the GNH concept was invented, as far as I know.., they are not exactly famous for technological inventions, but, without having checked, I believe they score high on GNH, ,which suggests they are highly socially innovative.
However, imagine a bunch of happy, but “backward” people living in an earthly Shangri-La, faced with serious challenges to their very survival. Challenges that could only be met through technological means / innovations… – This to say that I don’t want to downplay the importance of modern technology, – far from it.

My message , basically, is that all aspects of innovation deserve our respect, and that  measuring innovativeness should be done by  GNP and GNH combined.

Should be fun to make a list based on my own recommendation..

Ps. Note to myself: Must distinguish between invention and innovation..

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3 responses to “Defining Innovation: Some “innoflating” considerations..

  1. Hi. This is Jacques Delacroix who, I must repeat on this blog, is not (NOT) a “Sanford sociologist,” but a sociologist who received a degree from Stanford, a long time ago when that good university was distracted by anti-war riots and by the consequences of hippie sexual promiscuity, not to mention bad LSD trips.

    I may have been at the origin of this blog’s rumination on innovation. If this is true, I am well pleased and I will award myself a small shot of Bourbon as a reward.

    For the record, I also think that social innovations count. And I agree with the choice of micro-finance as an example of an important social innovation. I don’t, however, agree with the idea that any time a democratic society adopts or adapts an old practice to satisfy one of its constituencies, any kind o innovation has taken place. So, for example, if a Danish town adopts the two-way, either direction bike lane, I am not impressed. In a Danish context, a city council could promulgate such a measure and still be brain-dead.

    Early in my discussion with this blogger ( I choose to call “Frans”), I gave as an example of American superior innovativeness, the double roll of toilet paper in public restrooms (in French: “le water-closet”). The practice of placing two rolls of toilet paper in public conveniences costs essentially nothing and it goes a long way toward relieving the anxiety of many of the literate about being trapped paperless in such a public place. (Even having to use one’s cell phone with one’s pants around one’s ankles to call for help I would think a little humiliating.)

    The greatest social (SOCIAL) innovation at all is, of course, the American-designed Internet. It’s a social invention because when it was designed, computers were few and slow, and they had little power. The existence of the Internet pushed and promoted the development of small and powerful computers rather than the reverse. Incidentally, I see the Internet as a quintessential American invention because it was designed to not (NOT) be centralized. I suspect Europeans are, for the most part, unable even to think that way.

    . Neverthless, it was not my original intention to engage in a pissing contest with Frans who always has another meaningless list in his pocket anyway. Rather, I wanted help in exploring to what extent European societies and others, including Japan, largely hitchike on American innovativeness. It’s only an impression and I have never expressed any doubt that everyday life is quite good in many such societies. I am sure the Danes, in particular, enjoy good lives.

    My question arises with particular poignancy now because the re-election of Mr Obama is taking America in a direction that is familiar but brutally new for this country. (I have expressed clearly on my log what I think of this disaster.) Looking into the future, I see it as possible that Americans will enjoy much cheaper but inferior dentistry (“Eurodentistry”). I just wonder who will be in charge of innovation. The answers I got from Frans over an intense two weeks, unfortunately do not constittue answers to my specific question.

    If you have thoughtful comments on this comment, I would like to publish them on my blog. The comments would have to be other than of the kind, “Europe is better because we can retire at_____________.” I am still only interested in innovativeness. That would include cultural innovativeness in the broadest sense.

    Frans: I you know how and if you can, I wish you would hotlink your article and this long comment of mine to my blog. Thank you.

    [ delacroixjacques’ blog: ]

  2. Re: “a small shot of Bourbon as a reward..” -- Make it two..BIG shots :)
    Hey folks, I’ve tried in vain to convince delacroixjacques that the USA is not the only innovative place on this planet, especially when it comes to Social Innovation, see -- I’d give a really GOOD bottle of Bourbon to anyone who could..

  3. Pingback: Defining Innovation: Some “innoflating” considerations.. (transhuman)

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