A passage on innovation in a recent article questioning STEM education funding caught my attention.
While everyone generally agrees that “innovation” is critical to U.S. economic and social progress, there aren’t good definitions of what the term means let alone how to measure innovation.
This reminded me of an article I saw last week from Harvard Business Review titled, “Please Can We All Just Stop Innovating,” which argues that the word innovation has become a meaningless buzzword akin to what “synergy” and “paradigm shift” were in the 90s.
Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma may have helped propel this word to alleged buzzword status. This is unfortunate because in the book innovation has a real meaning: Something new that provides increased value to an existing market or provides a product or service to a new market that previously did not have access to it. Christensen explains how innovation drives the cycle of commoditization and de-commoditization that everyone working in technology has seen. The word is too important to retire.
Much of the use of the word innovation, particularly with regard to STEM education and economic growth, is consistent with its legitimate meaning. Providing more value to existing markets and bringing products to people who previously could not afford them or lacked technical understanding to use them is what economic growth is all about. To use Thomas Friedman’s terms, innovation might be stressful on our olive tree (cultural identity) as it eliminates jobs and commoditizes previously high-margin industries. But if we want more Lexus (wealth and fancy consumer products), we need people innovatively applying STEM knowledge.
It is less clear whether we need particular funding programs for STEM education. If people believe STEM knowledge and hard work create value, they will seek out the knowledge without regard to government funding. If people think prosperity is a birthright or engineering is un-cool, no amount of funding will help.
Image Source Credit: Click on the image to go to the Wall Street Journal article "You Call That Innovation?"