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Five of the biggest myths about innovation

Nov 17, 2019

A lot of people have big ideas about what innovation means, but a lot of those ideas are just holding people back from being innovative themselves. Anne Byrne and Grace Cunningham discuss the five biggest myths about innovation.

Myth #1: Innovation is just a buzzword

We know that ‘innovation’ gets its fair share of eye-rolls, but it’s not because innovation is just a buzzword – it’s that the word ‘innovation’ is often misused or used without understanding what it is.

There are many definitions of innovation out there. The one I use is “the creation of a new, viable offering that adds value”. It’s the last part of the definition that differentiates what is meant by ‘innovation’ and what people often mean when they use the word liberally. Innovation that isn’t viable – that isn’t working in the real world – isn’t innovation; it’s just an idea. Innovation isn’t just a cool new thing, it’s something which must add value to the lives of the citizen, employee or member of the public.

Innovation can mean something as simple as turning ideas into a policy or process, delivering new or better services, or building on solutions that already exist.

Myth #2: Innovation means technology

A common misconception is that innovation must involve complex technology or that technology itself is innovation. Technology is a huge enabler of innovation but is not necessarily innovative. What’s really innovative is when a user's need is met or a social problem is solved in a new way. It can be high-tech (such as eTolls instead of queuing at a toll booth) but it can also be low-tech (like Dublin City Council’s tea and chat sessions to engage with local community groups).

Myth #3: It’s got to be the next iPhone to “count” as innovation

Innovation doesn’t have to be new – some of the best innovations are where existing processes or technologies are adapted to meet a new need. Innovation at its finest is when seemingly unconnected things are joined together to make a really impactful solution.

Mosquito-borne diseases cause hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Mosquito repellents exist, but one of the challenges faced is how to distribute and dispel the repellents across large spaces. In Bangkok, social entrepreneurs looked around their city and found the answer in the ubiquitous mopeds and motorbikes. They fitted a device to the exhaust pipes of the bikes that releases natural mosquito repellents around the vehicle. The developers claim that they have protected 80,000 people so far. Neither mopeds nor mosquito repellent were “new” technologies, but with a bit of creativity and modification, the developers brought these existing elements together to create a powerful innovation.

Myth #4: I’m not an innovator

Everyone can be an innovator, and everyone is creative – you just need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge.

There isn’t one type of person who is an innovator. Innovation does need big thinkers and tech whizzes – but it also needs the small thinkers who will work on the detail to make the big idea work. It also needs people whizzes, who make sure that technology can meet the users’ need.

There are some common innovator traits – curiosity, an experimental mindset, and empathy – but these can be developed in all of us with the right training, tools and culture.

Myth #5: The public service isn’t innovative

There are many ways we see innovation in the private sector, but the public sector can be innovative, as well. We’ve seen truly inspiring innovations developed by the public service across the world. For example, a public servant in Portland, Oregon was instrumental in the development of Google Transit; similarly hospitals across the world are being re-designed to better meet the needs of patients.

There are great examples close to home, too. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are rolling out digital services, through mywelfare.ie, that have been designed in a truly user-centred way. Dublin City Council have implemented innovations from painted traffic light boxes to brighten the city and reduce graffiti.

Become an innovator

No matter who you are, or what sector you are in, you can be innovative. If you are creative (you are!) and recognise a need in your business or community, try to solve the problem with the tools already available.

Anne Byrne and Grace Cunningham are part of the GovLab team in Deloitte.