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Letter from the Editor

The Geography of Innovation

The global culture of valuable, fresh thinking.

  • This letter appeared in the January/February 2008 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • December 18, 2007

What is innovation, and how may it best be fostered by companies and other organizations?

Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher.

I am just back from three weeks of travel, having visited biotechnology startups in Germany and media companies in India, and I return convinced that what is called the “innovation economy” is its own nation, whose citizens share a common way of seeing and working. (Earlier speculations on the subject were published on this page in the September/October 2006 issue.)

This story is part of our January/February 2008 Issue
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It is best to begin by asserting what innovation is not. Innovation is not invention, and still less is it scientific discovery. An innovation must be valuable, which means it must exist in a market or some more general social context of supply and demand.

A special report published by the Economist last October and edited by Vijay Vaitheeswaran floated a definition proposed by the Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development, a think tank. Innovation, according to this formulation, encompasses “new products, business processes, and organic changes that create wealth or social welfare.” The Economist also cites a simpler definition from Richard Lyons, the chief learning officer of Goldman Sachs: “fresh thinking that creates value.”

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Either definition will do, although both smack of the jargon of management consultants. For me, neither definition captures the discomforting novelty of true innovations. Innovation disrupts our existing way of doing business or creates entirely new ways of doing things. Always, innovations are embraced by those who find them valuable, are hyperbolized by the companies and organizations that benefit from their adoption, but are resisted by incumbent companies and organizations and conservative customers and users. When an innovation is sufficiently accepted by enough people, however, resistance to that innovation becomes feckless and fruitless–it amounts to an attempt to pretend that reality is other than how it is.

Expressed this way, it might seem that innovation, while possessing the force of the inevitable, would be regarded warily by institutions whose function is to promote continuity and stability. Indeed, some bureaucrats and religious leaders would prefer to mitigate innovation’s influence.

But in the United States and Europe, and even more so among those who, no matter their physical location, really inhabit some outpost of the innovation economy, there is a common conviction that innovation is a powerful force for good that should be encouraged and lauded. That’s because innovation expands human possibilities and is the single most important cause of economic growth. In the same special report, the Economist cited the McKinsey Global Institute’s demonstration that competition and innovation, and not information technology alone, led to the productivity gains around the world during the 1990s.

This being so, can governments do anything to increase innovation among companies and organizations within their borders? Not much. Ever since I became the editor of Red Herring magazine in the mid-1990s, I have heard countless story pitches about the establishment in different countries of government-supported technology clusters or hubs. All were to have competed with Silicon Valley and Cambridge, MA. All ignominiously failed, with the possible exception of the technology cluster in Cambridge, England. The things that governments can do to foster innovation are limited and simple: fund research based on long-term discovery, devise regulations and tax incentives that promote risk capital and entrepreneurialism, protect intellectual property, uphold the rule of law, and maintain flexible labor markets. Otherwise, governments do best by doing least.

Rather, innovation seems to be more the product of culture and methodology. The culture of innovation tolerates failure and smiles upon creativity. But such a culture is not enough in itself: successful innovation also pitilessly rejects bad ideas when their promise has been exhausted and efficiently executes the development and commercialization of the best ideas.

Wherever I go, innovators seem to instinctually recognize these paired demands of culture and methodology–and, more important, they burn with a passion for innovation itself.

Attentive readers will have noticed that Technology Review looks a little different. Don’t repine: we’ve changed very little. Beginning on page 27, you’ll find a new section, To Market, that will follow the emerging technologies we write about elsewhere as they become commercial products. Also, we’ve shifted around our furniture. Regularly recurring pages that enjoyed some propinquity of subject or style are now contiguous: we’ve placed Notebooks, our guest columns, directly after this page and Hack, our deconstruction of a particular technology, in the back of the magazine, where it now abuts Reviews. Otherwise, the changes are superficial, although we hope you find them pleasing and useful: we have new fonts that are more legible, a new palette that is brighter, a new treatment for our charts that is more straightforward, and new section headers that more obviously announce the different parts of the magazine. We think the new design is very elegant; but write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@­technologyreview.com.

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