Stop Confusing Innovation And Invention

They are two different things that have a similar impact


Although Thomas Edison was born almost a century before Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, both are quite rightly seen as pioneers within their respective fields. Yet while Jobs was an innovator, Edison was an inventor.

The latter’s most notable invention - the incandescent lightbulb - was a first, and put an end to science’s search for a product that could produce artificial light. Jobs’s career, however, wasn’t founded on his ability to make something from scratch, but his ability to envision how current products could be improved.

Author and futurist, Jacob Morgan, makes a simple distinction: ‘an invention gives us the ability to do something, but doesn’t have a market impact’. In his video, he surmises that the Google Glass was an invention because it gave us ‘the ability’ to use head-mounted displays, but due to the product’s limitations, didn’t have what was needed to impact on society.

However subtle, innovations change the way we live and work. The iPhone is a good example. Not only has it been widely distributed, the creation of features like the App Store changed the perception of what a ‘phone’ meant. It wasn’t, however, an entirely novel concept. Telephones began to be successful in the late 19th century. Since then, a number of inventors have been credited with inventing the phone, none of them, however, is Steve Jobs.

In a column in MediaShift’s Idea Lab, Tom Grasty, uses an analogy to denote this difference: 'If invention is a pebble tossed in the pond, innovation is the rippling effect that pebble causes. Someone has to toss the pebble. That's the inventor. Someone has to recognize the ripple will eventually become a wave’.

Even if there is a difference, what does it mean for business? Kim Basin states: ‘You can't just focus on innovation and you can't just focus on invention’. Both innovation and invention are vastly different processes, and therefore require different people, with different personalities and characteristics to carry them out. You only have to look at the inventions made this decade - like touch screen technology - to see how profitable invention remains.

In 1899, Charles H. Duell - Commissioner of the US Patent Office - stated: ‘everything that can be invented has been invented.’ It would be so easy to repeat Duell’s mistake. But many stones remain left unturned. In medical science, for example, an obvious example of a needed invention would be a cure for cancer. In terms of innovations, the Internet of Things will bring its own challenges, and will demand that both governments and businesses react accordingly.


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