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Is technology key to innovation?

Is technology key to innovation? In this article, we focus on the transformations technology stimulates in innovation by analysing a few examples.
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© The Royal College of Art

How key is technology to innovation? Is it a fundamental component? This article focuses on the transformations technology stimulates in innovation by analysing a few examples.

What is innovation?

Let’s begin with the meaning of the word ‘innovation’, which is related to the development, and invention, of something new. This makes innovation a quality of any idea or concept that can take the shape of products, processes, approaches, methods or technologies, etc. Innovation is therefore a standalone quality of an idea, which doesn’t necessarily need any tangible form. It expresses a human quality, ie, the capacity to think something new and produce new ideas independently from the shape they take.

Nonetheless, in recent years the term innovation has been more commonly linked to technological advancement. Whether related to the medical, mechanical, engineering or scientific sector, innovation has often been related to the ability of technology to address a human or social issue. This has caused the progressive detachment of innovation from its social context, and a narrow focus on specific, seldom practical, issues has become a more common approach.

Does innovation need to be technical?

What if we step back and consider if innovation needs technology to innovate, at all? Is technology key to addressing social issues – like water scarcity, global warming, gender gaps and discrimination? Does innovation need to be technical?

These questions aim to disengage the relation between technology and innovation, and move the attention to other factors that stimulate the need for innovation; this includes any practice, approach, behaviour, culture, etc.

The Google Glass failure

Google Glass is one of the most famous failures that Google has engaged with. Although the technology didn’t develop any particular issue – the glasses worked by providing information directly into the user’s field of vision – it didn’t reach an audience wider than its geeks. This is because this form of tech-led innovation didn’t engage with society – it didn’t address any particular context that the product could innovate by responding to a particular event.

Google Glass failed to identify any particular transformation for society, together with any particular subject who could have benefitted from any value the product would have introduced by responding to social needs (eg, a job, a practice, an attitude, a behaviour). The glasses are an example that makes us reflect on the role of social transformations and social values for generating opportunities for innovation.

© The Royal College of Art
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