Note: Through the research she conducted for her PhD dissertation, Nicola Hepburn made some key discoveries about innovation in Ontario. This is the first post in a four-part series that she wrote based on her findings.  

What is innovation?

Depends who you ask! While working on my PhD dissertation, I posed that question to members of Ontario’s research and innovation ecosystem. Interviewees included senior university and college administrators, scientists at research hospitals, policy strategists, civil servants, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and former members of government-commissioned advisory groups.

The answers ranged from narrow and specific to sweeping and complex. The result was a collage of ideas showing that innovation means different things to Ontarians.

  • Almost all of the interviewees pointed to the importance their sector or institution plays in advancing innovation at a community, regional, national and international level.
  • Many had strong views on the government’s role as facilitator or enabler of the innovation process.
  • There were particularly disparate perspectives on the topic of business innovation, with interviewees highlighting the integral part industry plays in the innovation space, the extent to which business is and should be more involved in the innovation process in Ontario and the appropriate means to incentivize such activity.
  • Several people discussed the distinctively different yet complementary roles and responsibilities that post-secondary education institutions play, and the potential for increasing the fundamental and applied research and innovation capacity in Ontario.

Time and time again, I heard about the value of taking risks and learning from one’s mistakes.

Six key characteristics of innovation

So what did this collage look like overall? Ontarians identified six key characteristics of innovation:

  1. Talented, trained and motivated people:  Innovation starts with and is driven by talented people. Persons from all sectors of the economy have important and mutually dependent roles to play. It is important to train people on how to be innovative―it’s a process that anyone can learn.
  2. Newness: Innovation is a new way to create value in the market. It is concerned with developing new concepts, finding new ways of doing things and realizing new ways of applying ideas.
  3. Practicality: Innovation requires an element of application. If a new or improved product or service is developed, it is innovative if it can be applied to real-life situations.
  4. Change: Innovation generates change. Change may involve improving an existing product or service, which in turn improves the quality of life for individuals. Change can be incremental or disruptive, and must have an impact and value, be it social, economic or otherwise.
  5. Economic value: Innovation is the provision of greater value to customers through more effective products or services. As such, innovation requires a consumer―i.e., someone who is benefitting from that innovation. For the economics to work, that consumer must be willing to pay more to acquire that innovation, or the provider of the innovation must reap a cost savings that may or may not be passed on to the customer.
  6. Inclusiveness: Innovation encompasses many sectors, institutions and individuals. It requires a sustained level of commitment and co-operation from all partners in the ecosystem.

Distinguishing between invention and innovation

It’s worth noting that my interviewees were quick to distinguish between invention and innovation.

  • They emphasized that an invention is a new product, service or process that may not have any bearing on a customer’s or a population’s needs, on improving the world, or any kind of new value.
  • An invention’s most distinctive quality lies in its newness or uniqueness, while an innovation’s most distinctive quality lies in its value to a customer or population.
  • All inventions will not become innovations, and only some innovations come from inventions.

Read the entire series:

Nicola Hepburn

Nicola Hepburn is a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation will explore the Ontario government’s efforts to develop policy intended to leverage the province’s research and innovation capacity and contribute to regional economic growth between 2003 and 2011. See more…