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Kicking the can: the nature of innovation


It is always interesting to hear and think about different approaches to innovation. But if you talk about it with enough people, you realise that what constitutes ‘innovation’ is somewhat subjective.

For me, true innovation means big steps forward. And that is what we particularly really need right now, dealing with the big issues facing society in COVID 19 and climate change.

Now let me take you to a call I was recently, for an advisory board on innovation. I was listening to one particular participant who was eulogising about innovation in manufacturing. Now, I’m all for innovation in all sectors, but the example he cited had me unconvinced. His example of a big innovative leap forward achieved during the covid—19 crisis was… producing more canned goods per month.

It begs the question, what was this canned goods producer doing before? It’s an efficiency improvement, a good thing but one which firmly sits under the category ‘business as usual’ in my book.

The experience got me wondering about the nature of innovation, and whether we are really being ambitious enough as we face these major challenges.

We should be talking about the big steps, fundamental changes to our systems and the ways we do things. Taking our economy beyond ‘resilience’ to become anti-fragile, designed to adapt to an increasing chaotic world. To protect humanity and the planet we live on.

I think we saw some green shoots of these opportunities early on in the COVID—19 crisis. Businesses crossed over into areas they traditionally haven’t worked in — F1 teams manufactured ventilators, craft beer brands made hand wash, vending machine companies started supplying PPE. These all resulted in varying levels of success, but the crises we face demand risk taking. We need to make sure policy encourages this form of imaginative innovation.

When I read the recent government consultations on innovation, my heart sank as I saw it lead with efficiency. Making more and doing more of the same won’t let us solve the big challenges our society faces. For me, if your ‘innovation’ is an efficiency improvement then it better be a whopper.

Couldn’t the aerospace industry which receives such a hefty portion of UK government innovation funding, inventing an aircraft so energy efficient it can fly around the world using only the power of the sun?

Instead of kicking the can down the road again, let’s find some big, fat innovations so they can truly deliver to society’s future needs.

Think big
Think big
Growing populations, climate change, COVID 19 and future pandemics — we won’t solve any of these with more baked bean cans.