Invention vs Innovation

May 28, 2016

SparcPoint aims to be a center for innovation. That is, we desire for people to take what they see around them and create something new from the parts. Are we inventors as well? Sure. But only to a degree. Sometimes the distinction between the two isn't clear. Let's try to make it clear for those that may be a little unsure. We can start by providing a definition.

By reading these two definitions, I quickly think to myself, "man, these are exactly the same definitions." And to some degree, they are. However, look at some of the synonyms that it places on them. Invention carries synonyms like "creation", "origination", and "design" (yes innovation is in here too). Innovation though, shows some different types of synonyms including "alteration", "transformation", and "breakthrough."

These synonyms show us a way at looking more in-depth into their meanings. With invention, we see the idea of creation; the start of a new product or process. With innovation, we see transformation; the changing of a product or process. That's what we need to focus on with these two definitions.

Invention, at its core, is the creation of something new. Is this also an innovation? Sure. Being an inventor by proxy, makes you an innovator. You are creating an upheaval in the system with whatever product or process being released. Thomas Edison was an inventor. He created the light bulb and this invention had never been seen before. He didn't take a different type of light bulb and just make it better. No. He created the very idea of the light bulb. This is what differentiates an inventor and an innovator.

An innovator will take the world around him and alter it, change it, and create a breakthrough. It may not be a brand new product. It may be something as simple as using LEDs for light bulbs instead of incandescents. This wasn't an invention. Somebody already created the LED. Another person already created the light bulb. Instead, using LEDs as lightbulbs was an innovation.

Arguments can be made, of course, that this is what Edison did as well. He only took what was around him and created the light bulb: electricity, filament, etc. This is true, but these products were completely unrelated to each other. Edison went from saying he wanted to use electricity to light his home to finding a way to do it. Sure, he saw candles and lanterns. But the core of the invention was something completely new. I would argue that Edison is an inventor and an innovator. I would also argue that every inventor is an innovator in their own right. However, I do not believe every innovator is an inventor.

Let's take another example.

Steve Jobs. He was an innovator, not an inventor. The iPod was an amazing contraption at its release. What could it do? Play music. The iPod was really nothing special from a technological standpoint. So why did they sell so much after their 1st generation? Because they were beautiful, user-friendly machines. That's it. Steve Jobs took something already out in the world and made it better by adding his artistic touch. This was a grand innovation at the time. The iPhones and iPads were the same way: innovations, not inventions.

It would seem that the differences are subtle and the line is not always easy to draw. There are many innovators that are also inventors. Rarely are there inventors that are not innovators. I mean, is a fork tied to a lighter so you can eat and smoke really an invention? Not really. At least, not in any practical sense. But if you look back on our world and see the various inventions and innovations that have come about, you will notice a trend. The inventors disrupted technology at a fundamental level. Innovators build upon those disruptions to devise more effective and efficient ways of using them to better humanity (in most cases).

We should recognize the difference between these two types. In many cases, we can innovate in many ways and I believe we can learn to innovate. However, invention is much more difficult. To create a product or process that fundamentally disrupts our cycle of technology is much harder to accomplish and teaching this is difficult. Many times, the great inventors were born with an innate creativity that they utilized to create big things. Building something completely new drove their desires. They deserve a different level of recognition in my book. They were brilliant men and women in many different ways, but what they brought to world changed us forever.

So, Who are you? An Inventor? Or an Innovator? Let me know in the comments and good luck inventing (or innovating)!

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