The meaning of 'Innovation'

Not a day goes by when we don’t hear the word innovation, it’s slipped into everyday life, employed as a standard by which we should all be operating by.

Posted 3rd August 2023|4 minute read

If you aren’t innovative, you are so 20th century, and it’s seen as the only way that things get done - “that hasn’t worked so let’s try this innovative approach”.  Some of us even rely on it to have a job.  But innovation seems to have slipped through the net when it comes to definitions and meanings. We all nod our heads knowingly when someone talks about innovation but do we really know what it means? Of course, there is a dictionary definition for it but what does it mean in practical terms? What is the real-world manifestation of innovation? When can you see and touch innovation and should we even care?

It is easy to get swept along with all of the hype and conjure up images of robots flying aeroplanes, teams of scientists and engineers in super-labs with VR headsets on, holograms of DNA floating in the air and digital twins of the ocean projected 360° around them, or AI so clever it is now teaching half the curriculum in school. It’s often easier just to tie the concept of innovation to something new or doing things faster, going further or creating something that we didn’t know we needed rather than unpick what it may really mean.

Innovation at National Oceanography Centre

In my work at NOC, I operate in an environment where I am constantly surrounded by this stereotypical conception of innovation; teams of scientists and engineers unravelling the mysteries of the ocean and developing new technology to explore areas we have never been to before and collect data we could previously only dream of. It’s inspiring stuff, and highly innovative. Whilst I am in awe of this and privileged to be immersed in it, I often question whether what I am experiencing really is innovation; cutting edge technology, pioneering science – is this really innovation, and if not, what is innovation?

It’s a complex one to answer. What I see is innovation in the sense that it is pushing the boundaries of what is possible from an engineering perspective and creating new scientific knowledge and understanding that didn’t exist or wasn’t known. However, this is only part of what innovation means, an important part but still only a small part. A really succinct definition of innovation would have to be “creating and orchestrating the conditions that allow something to happen that has such an impact that it fundamentally shifts our interaction with the world around us or how we think about our world”. For me, innovation has to be coupled with impact otherwise it only exists as an idea, a concept, or at best an experiment undertaken by a few scientists confined and limited to a laboratory.

Thinking innovation

Innovation needs to be thought of in a multi-layered way, it’s a bit like an onion. What you see is the outer layer, the manifestation of a system of things that happen to create the outer layer. In the marine context, autonomous vessels are the physical manifestation born out of a complex system of conditions that have allowed them to be created; societal expectations of cleaner ways of working, engineering evolution, market forces and more. Whilst autonomous vessels are innovative in themselves, the ability to create the conditions among this complex system to develop them is the true innovation. For me, innovation is much more about how we see and approach the world and what impact we want to achieve more than simply the physical thing.

Innovation today

I believe that we live in a world where technology is moving so quickly that true innovation needs to be directed at the adoption and scale of new technologies rather than any new technologies or discoveries themselves. Our natural thirst for adventure and understanding will always force us to “come up with something new” but innovation is about creating the conditions in which these new things can actually achieve impact in the real world. Creating and orchestrating the conditions to allow this to happen is extremely difficult. It’s that moment where businesses either succeed or fail, or where ideas become reality or simply wither away.

This innovation can only be done by humans, and it’s a state of mind and set of human behaviours that lie at the core. They aren’t new, shiny or particularly innovative in the common understanding of the term, but rather they lie at the heart of what I believe innovation to be and are essential to create the conditions that allow something to have such an impact that it fundamentally shifts our interaction with the world around us and how we think about it; bold ambition, clarity of goals, building relationships, being vulnerable, focus and hard work, diversity of skills, experience and cultural background. Recognising the need for these, seeking them out, applying them in the right amount and at the right time whilst adapting, reacting, and leading the world around you to create the conditions for the “thing” to flourish and scale up achieving real impact, that is true innovation.

The real meaning of innovation

I realise that this goes very much against the grain of what we typically assume innovation to mean. Many people might assume that the version of innovation I have spelt out equates to “getting stuff done”. However, achieving this on scale is fundamentally essential to actually getting important things done, no matter the new ideas, technology or engineering. Seeing this as an integrated partnership is true innovation that will have the largest and longest impact.

It doesn’t take a lot to work out that my innovation is essentially the core traits required to “get stuff done”, something we all possess. If we can truly hone this to create those conditions for the “things” to flourish and achieve impact at the right time, then that is the key surely? Keep the good ideas, clever engineering, amazing science coming and pair it with my innovation and that’s our future neatly sown up. If only it were that simple!  The thing about innovation is that it is completely subjective. Overlay that on my definition, and we are back to square one.

About the author

Huw Gullick

Huw Gullick

Managing Director

Huw’s spent over 15 years working in some of the world’s most respected technology and engineering organisations. With a technical background in aero-engines and materials engineering, he’s responsible for the overall leadership of NOC Innovations, and is a member of the executive team at the National Oceanography Centre.

For me, innovation is much more about how we see and approach the world and what impact we want to achieve more than simply the physical thing.

Huw Gullick

Associate Director NOC Innovations