The October 13 issue of The Economist included a special report on innovation. The lead article set the stage when it said, "Rapid and disruptive change is now happening across new and old businesses. Innovation, as this report will show, is becoming both more accessible and more global. This is good news because its democratization releases the untapped ingenuity of people everywhere and that could help solve some of the world's weightiest problems."
"What is innovation?," the article later asks and proceeds to provide its own answers. "Although the term is often used to refer to new technology, many innovations are neither new nor involve new technology." It further adds "One way to arrive at a useful definition is to rule out what innovation is not. It is not invention. New products might be an important part of the process, but they are not the essence of it. These days much innovation happens in processes and services. Novelty of some sort does matter, although it might involve an existing idea from another industry or country."
I very much agree with The Economist's broad view of innovation, expressed in the various excellent articles in this issue, as well as in similar articles in the past. I strongly believe that increasingly, the toughest problems, requiring the kinds of breakthrough thinking you get from the very best technologists and scientists, are out there in the real world - in the marketplace and in society at large. So, if that is where the problems that inspire breakthroughs are, then it makes sense that the top researchers and innovators should step out of their ivory towers - whether in academia, corporations or government - and personally learn about them. If they do, they can, one hopes, come up not only with elegant, innovative solutions to the problems, but also with new ideas that might lead to fundamental advances in science and technology.