How Psychologists Define Innovation

By Shlomo Maital

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   “In the physical realm, a behavioral innovation is a new, useful, and potentially transmitted learned behavior, arising from asocial learning (innovation by independent invention) or a combination of asocial and social learning (innovation by modification), that is produced so as to successfully solve a novel problem or an existing problem in a novel manner”. *

     The Latin root of the word “innovation” is “nova”, or novel. This is of course a necessary condition for something to be called an innovation, though novel is definitely moderated by geography — I tell my students that if they introduce an idea proven successful elsewhere, but that does not exist in their town, city, region or country, it is still an innovation.   But child development experts have offered a new dimension to innovation – that of social learning. The definition above appears in a recent article in Child Development. (My wife drew my attention to it). I think it contains a hugely significant point.

       Innovation can be ‘asocial’, or non-social. (Note, this is NOT anti-social!). That is, an individual comes up with a powerful innovation, on their own. A “eureka” moment. But I believe most innovations are a combination of asocial and social learning – once you have an idea, you need to share it, discuss it, test it, build a team… this is a social process.

         Innovations solve problems. This too is an essential part of the definition. An innovation that is brilliant, complex, technical – and solves no problem, or creates no value, is not an innovation.

       A key point emerging from this article:   Global benchmarking.   Countries share social problems. E.g. aging, poverty, inequality, corruption, ….   They tackle problems in different ways. Some are innovative and successful. Some are innovative but fail ultimately.   Countries do not sufficiently learn from one another. For instance: The world faces a huge problem with job creation, as robots emerge to do much of our daily work. How to deal with it? Finland is trying an experiment, in Oulu, a far-north city with a great university.   They are paying a monthly sum to everyone, to encourage them to take risky jobs, with startups, without worrying about the salary.   The world should watch this experiment closely.

     Countries everywhere, and cities, and regions, and towns, should be trying social experiments… tackling tough social problems with creative innovative approaches. Many will fail. Some will work. There should be a global network of such experimenters.   This is evolution put to work in the service of humanity. Yet in my experience, countries try hard to invent their own wheels.. and mainly do it badly.  

       Social learning is not just an individual process, it is also a process in which whole countries can learn from one another. But do they?   Not nearly enough.

* “Eureka!: What Is Innovation, How Does It Develop, and Who Does It?” Kayleigh Carr, Rachel L. Kendal, and Emma G. Flynn, Durham University.   Child Development, Sept.-Oct. 2016

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