05: Innovation is Hard Work

It offends contemporary sensibilities to say so, but what Thomas Edison famously said of genius – that it is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration – remains largely true of innovation.

Given that mankind’s imaginings are so often, nowadays, confined to lurid scenes of future chaos, the power and utility of scientific, technological and other kinds of inspiration should never be underestimated. But nor does innovation grow on trees. Serendipity is important in science, but as Louis Pasteur said, ‘In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind’. [1] To establish the structure of a molecule can come to someone in a dream, but to dream that special dream one must spend years thinking about and experimenting with chemistry – and to do something useful with that molecule, still more years.

Society’s elites are not scrupulous enough in preparing for the Next Big Thing. They are open to someone else’s innovation, or to the outsourcing of innovation, but would rather not do it themselves. Elites don’t much believe in building yet another prototype or demonstration. They are deliciously interdisciplinary in outlook, of course; but real, in-depth specialisation in one discipline has become conspicuous by its absence.

In innovation, there’s no such thing as a free lunch

Today’s myriad different kinds of networks distribute innovations, but do not by themselves create them. However fast they operate, new media are no substitute for content-rich innovation. Innovatory firms may cluster together in particular geographical regions, cities and localities; yet even in Silicon Valley, where once there was a passion for telling all, people don’t any more exchange much serious intellectual property in the pub.

IP is so hard to come by, it’s felt too valuable for that.

Much – though not all – of science today is freely exchanged, and open access to scientific journals is growing. But in the commercial world of intellectual property the accent is often more on the property than on the intellectual. The work of patent and copyright lawyers is more valued than the work of innovators and  can testify to that), even if it is probably innovators who have to work harder.

In software, open source has much to recommend it. In astronomy, the use of thousands of PCs in parallel shows some of the merits of ‘crowd-sourcing’. But in both of these cases, large numbers of people have to work large numbers of hours to make a difference. Yes, in innovation there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Innovation is an uphill struggle

There is no need to revive the moralism of the Protestant work ethic. Too much work on innovation lacks focus, and careful, collective discussion: today’s innovation processes often make extravagant use of people’s time. But there is a need to stop the pretence that innovation can be reduced simply to creativity. There is also a need to destroy the myth that creativity is simply the playful combination of existing elements. Innovation cannot just consist of combination; anyway, combining the old takes a lot of hard work.

It is time that students, in particular, learned that innovation involves meeting setbacks, blind alleys, frustrations, polemics, long periods of patient perplexity, and the occasional humiliation in front of one’s peers.

Innovation means making something new. Brand extensions, line extensions and ‘new, improved’ don’t qualify for the title. Innovation is not done in a day. It is a struggle uphill, and there is plenty that is noble in that.

Pasteur, Lecture at the University of Lille, 7 December 1854.


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  1. After 50 years reading drawings, commissioning process plant and oil & gas, designing control schemes and supervising the construction, like any profession one has an insight which you realise is not available to everyone, the experience coupled with the theoretical knowledge and practical hands on work in the field has led to a vision and sixth sense that few can even contemplate.
    The hard work both physical and mental has paid off because no problem is too hard to solve. Solutions appear as if by magic, often after a good sleep, then I run to my workshop to build a prototype or experiment.
    Then the block, a layer of dull and inexperienced managers, accountants and politicians who have never connected a 13 amp plug. And so the idea stays in my head and files, maybe to be rediscovered in China or Korea sometime in the future.

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