It's Time To Build A National Innovation Infrastructure

By Henry Doss.  From Henry's regular column in Forbes, "Innovation Conversations."  JUN 1, 2016

Government is inevitably going to play a very significant role in infrastructure, and in a country with a federal system where vibrancy and economic health depend on interstate commerce, it's not going to be private enterprise or state governments that will give you things like an interstate highway system.

--  Norman Ornstein

It is past time for some plain speaking about the very concept of innovation.

Innovation science is still in its infancy.  We have just begun to scratch the tiniest part of the surface of how organizations and cultures become innovative entities.  For the most part, innovation is still more guess work than predictable activity, comprised generally of a set of miscellaneous tools, practices, acronyms, and models, loosely bundled and re-languaged as innovation.  These tactical approaches may very well have some intrinsic value on their own, but none of them in isolation address the challenge of an innovation system state.  They address small, isolated parts of a system.  So long as we continue to think of innovation as things we do (or even the sum of the outcomes of the things we do) we will not be doing innovation work . . . we are doing mostly the same old things we've always done, and just labeling those things "innovation."

This tactical, historical approach will not get us very far as a business, as a society or as an economy; in fact, re-packaging old, tired models of thinking into a fancier box and labeling that new box innovation will most likely hinder progress, simply because we can then be satisfied with decidedly inadequate answers to decidedly complex questions.  We will not make substantial, significant gains toward creating authentic, incremental innovation in our world until we begin to recognize innovation as a phenomenon of the state of a complex system, and we begin applying the science of complex adaptive systems to . . .  well, systems, rather than pieces of a system.

The implications of this perhaps obvious observation are profound.

For one thing, it means that we must begin recognizing that it is the system -- not individuals, not particular tactics or strategies, not a business model, not products, not anything in isolation -- that causes innovation.  This is difficult to get a handle on, because it suggests that when we talk about innovation, we are talking about culture -- and that leads to hand wringing and denial.  Even though most leaders readily acknowledge the outsized role that culture plays in innovation -- and all organizational outputs -- most will also shy away from a systemic, holistic approach to actually engineering culture.  This is simply because culture -- organizational system states -- defies easy answers, clear definitions and traditional metrics.  It is messy.   For lack of an accessible and clear answer to the culture question, most will then default to a set of tactics or actions that address something that feels like innovation.  And we are then right back to the same place as before, addressing particular pieces of the innovation puzzle, but not addressing innovation itself.

There's also an individual challenge associated with working on innovation.  Dealing with innovation as a "system state" rather than as particular things for particular people to do also offends our sense of autonomy.  We are hard-wired to want to own outcomes, to cause things to happen, to be able to take credit for breakthroughs.  We crave systems of management that point to direct accountability for what we accomplish.  But working on innovation as the state of a system -- and especially as one that can be random and serendipitous -- seems counter-intuitive.  We want to be in charge of the system, not have the system be in charge of us.  But real innovation is agnostic to what we think and want, and that feels uncomfortable.  In order to genuinely and effectively work on real innovation, we must be able to take ourselves as individuals completely out of the picture.  This isn't easy, particularly when the option is available to take on visible, "real" and measurable actions that can be recognized in ways we already understand . . . even if those "real actions" are about innovation in name only.

What is missing is this: We need a real, meaningful, actionable science of innovation systems, and we need the infrastructure -- culture engineers, organizational anthropologists, system experts and so on -- that can support the shift in thinking we need to be more innovative.  That shift is away from reductionist, piecemeal approaches to innovation, and toward holistic, system-based approaches.  Both elements -- the science and the infrastructure to support it -- are necessary if we are to make progress.   And this can only happen when we have a large-scale, extensive, ubiquitous innovation ecosystem in place.

In a sense, innovation is to the 21st century what the steam engine was to the industrial revolution. The various components of the steam engine -- fire, steam, metals, gears -- were there long before the steam engine existed.  It was not until two things happened -- ascience of heat and pressure that allowed us to capture productively the power of expanding gas, and the infrastructure to support the operation of steam engines -- that the breakthrough of broadly distributed, efficient, high-impact steam engines came to pass.  Without the science, the engine itself could not be conceived or built; but without the infrastructure -- engineers, mechanics, operators, repair shops, and so on -- the steam engine would have been a curiosity only.

In very similar ways, we need to think about -- and build -- an infrastructure of innovation to support the rapidly growing science of innovation.   We need innovation engineers and strategists and SMEs who are schooled in the science of innovation and complex systems and who understand and can propagate the system expertise necessary to engineer innovation.   We already have many of the tools and the expertise that are supportive of innovation, but they are not connected properly and serve more as one-off tactical support, rather than as part of a deeply networked infrastructure.  Accomplishing this will take many players working together collaboratively with an eye on the long haul, and it's one of those challenges that is especially suited to government participation.

If we are going to be serious about innovation, and not nibble around the tactical edges of culture and organizations, we need to be serious about building the support structures necessary for real innovation.  Just like the interstate highway system was never going to be built by fifty individual players, neither is an effective, system-based infrastructure of innovation.  Creating a truly innovative society will require large-scale public and private support, with both parties equally committed to a long-term outcome.   If we are serious as a business community, as a society and as individuals to recognize and optimize the potential for innovation to propel us into a more prosperous, sustainable, and equitable future, then it's time for the pubic and private sectors to come together and collaboratively build the real thing.  Otherwise, we are just playing a fool's game and calling it innovation.