Defining Innovation

Is ‘innovation’ the most overused word in the construction industry?

I think so, to the point that I’m willing to sponsor an award for anybody who can either, a) pinpoint something they’ve done that is genuinely innovative, or b) make the most innovative use of the word innovation.

You can’t move for construction companies and product manufacturers proclaiming themselves to be innovative - to the extent that the word is rendered empty and meaningless. As a general trend within the business community the dilution of ‘innovation’ has been identified for a while; in UK construction I feel the rot has only started to set in relatively recently.

Set in it has, however, and whenever I find myself in one of these self-inflicted dust storms of indignation, my favourite tactic is to turn to the dictionary for support. Oxford Dictionaries defines innovation as:

The act or process of innovating.

... which is hardly helpful. Even less helpful is the second definition:

A new method, product, idea etc.

... which only supports a stance of launching endless new (or slight variations on existing) products, however underwhelming, in order to self-diagnose as ‘innovative’.

There is a reason the dictionary didn’t provide much help here, as made clear in this episode of the excellent podcast The Allusionist: dictionaries chart the evolution of language rather than prescribing, for the benefit of pedants like me, the ‘correct’ usage of words.

As this occasion goes to show, I can no longer rely on the dictionary’s support quite so wholeheartedly!

So how might innovation in the construction industry be considered to manifest itself? An article by Redland in the May 2017 edition of RCI Magazine sought to address the question, arguing that product manufacturers are uniquely placed to address the need for innovation, having:

the commercial imperative to compete through research and development

... and, more often than not, the history of being:

founded on an entrepreneurial, investor-led basis.

It goes on to say that:

the key drivers to innovation are legislation and commerciality

... which, by their nature, require new products that can be understood and accepted by the marketplace. And so we’re back to new methods, new products and so on - which at least fits with the dictionary’s definition.

As we’ve established, that definition only exists because of the way the use of the word has evolved. By lowering the standards of what we’re willing to class as innovation, even encompassing natural product evolution, we’re lowering the bar for what truly creative thinking can achieve.

At the very least, then, I should propose my own understanding of what innovation means … except that I’m going to cheat and borrow the words of someone more talented and creative.

In the wake of the result of the referendum on the United Kingdom's relationship with the EU, the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce penned an article on the point of culture. The whole thing is worth your time, but my favourite section is:

Innovation doesn’t come from the profit motive. Innovation comes from those who are happy to embark on a course of action without quite knowing where it will lead, without doing a feasibility study, without fear of failure or too much hope of reward. The engine of innovation is reckless generosity…

That doesn’t sound like a comfortable fit with “commerciality”, “marketability” and “continuous improvement”, but that would be to ignore a section of the Redland article which blends with Cottrell Boyce’s vision of innovation. Look beyond the business buzzwords:

...suppliers can offer and combine expertise, advice and training. More communication and information flow up and down the supply chain is the only way to ensure a solutions-based approach to new product development.

... and you have an answer: genuine collaboration. The ‘reckless generosity’ of time given to listen to one another and learn, of sharing ideas; that is the crucible of innovation for the construction industry.