What is Innovation?

The concept of innovation is often associated with human-made tools & facilities only, excluding the innovations of nature. This is the influence of industrial paradigm. Picture source

In this blog article, I will analyse the meaning of innovation by the example of a medical pill against headache, first from the narrow perspective of industrial paradigm, and then from the broad perspective of ecological paradigm.

Let’s see some mainstream definitions of innovation:

“Innovation in its modern meaning is a new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in form of device or method. Innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.” Source: Wikipedia

“The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need.” Source: Business Dictionary

Assume, I have developed a medical pill which is effective against a certain kind of headache, with no or negligible side-affects. Can I call it an innovation?

No, not yet; I need to first do a market research to check. If there is a similar pill, I can’t call it an innovation.

Assume, I have done a market research thoroughly, and ascertained that there is not a similar pill produced by any other person or organisation. Can I now call it an innovation?

From the perspective of industrial paradigm yes, from the perspective of ecological paradigm no, not yet.

The perspective of industrial paradigm is limited to human production, and in most cases, even more narrowly to monetary human production; only human-made goods and services that are sold on the market for money. For the humancentric, mechanistic and reductionist worldview of industrial paradigm nature is not a producer.

If you couldn’t find a similar product on the market, your product is an innovation for the industrial paradigm. Non-monetary products and services of nature are not visible to industrial paradigm.

But ecological paradigm looks further: Are there any non-monetary solutions of nature, like traditional medicines to this kind of headache? For example, are there any medicinal plants that are (or were) known and used against the same kind of headache by some societies?

Assume, I have examined all known medicinal plants, and all societies of the world, and couldn’t find a treatment for this kind of headache. Can I now call my pill an innovation from the perspective of ecological paradigm?

Yes, but only partially.

Because, I haven’t yet investigated the causes of this headache. Maybe there are some practices like nutritional habits, lifestyle, regular use of some medicinal plants, regular exercise, clean environment and so on, that will prevent the occurrence of such headaches. Maybe preventive nutrition and lifestyle would as a fundamental solution permanently eradicate such headache, and therefore the necessity for such pills.

So, I can’t sell any pills if there is an already known preventive solution which permanently eradicates the need for any medicine. This is the drawback of ecological paradigm from the perspective of a greedy company that wants to earn money at all costs. If the company had a choice in shaping the minds of a society, it would certainly prefer industrial paradigm to ecological paradigm.

One of the primary characteristics of the industrial paradigm, and mainstream (neoclassical) economics shaped by this paradigm, is that, it does not take into account the historical and evolutionary developments that create a need. As a consequence, it doesn’t ask the simple question “why do we have such a need?” Instead, it asks directly “how can we satisfy this need?”

So, instead of looking for fundamental solutions that would solve a problem permanently and sustainably, industrial paradigm seeks for superficial and short-term solutions, like a doctor who tries to heal symptoms rather than underlying causes of a disease.

For example, developing and selling expensive cancer drugs rather than eliminating the causes of cancer like industrial pollution, pesticides and junk food… As you can imagine, there is not much money in cancer prevention, but there is lots of money in selling cancer drugs.

The innovation concept of industrial paradigm requires only the knowledge of markets, products and companies (i.e. scope of mainstream economics). The innovation concept of ecological paradigm requires however a much broader knowledge including the sciences of nature & human like anthropology, biology, ecology, evolution and sociology.

The fact that the industrial paradigm does not question the historical and evolutionary causes of problems or needs, can be partially explained with the mechanistic and reductionist worldview of this paradigm.

Typically, the outcomes (outputs) of a machine are almost directly and immediately linked to its input factors. So, one wouldn’t expect to find inside a machine complex internal cycles or a complex web of inter-relationships, that would make the identification of the real causes of problems very difficult. In other words, with a mechanistic and reductionist mindset, one would tend to confuse real causes with the symptoms on the surface, by simply overlooking the complex web of causes and consequences.

Another reason of this shallowness could be the modern industrial education (generally too deficient in philosophy, ecology, literature and fine arts to foster imagination and empathy) that praises extreme technical specialization, which often comes at the cost of losing the ability to see the complete picture.

Written by: Tunç Ali Kütükçüoğlu, August 2019

About tuncali

I began keeping aquariums as early as I was nine years old. Since then, I kept many aquariums and lots of fish, plant and invertebrate species. My favorite fish family is of course cichlids with their fascinating behaviors. My relatively new area of interest is low-tech natural aquariums as almost self-sufficient ecosystems that are I think ideal models for sustainable life.
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3 Responses to What is Innovation?

  1. tuncali says:

    Here is a real-life example, which might make you question the innovation concept of the industrial paradigm:

    Companies like Monsanto-Bayer or Syngenta take a seed (maize, cotton or soya), which is a product of many million years of biological evolution and many hundred years of cultural evolution,

    do some genetic editing at 1-2 spots of a giant genome, and get a patent for this GM seed as if it were their own innovation.

    How can the innovation of nature and tradition ignored, or undervalued to such an extend?

  2. tuncali says:

    I’ve just finished reading the 7. chapter the book “The Value of Everything” by Mariana Mazzucato: Extracting Value through the Innovation Economy

    My comments & questions to Mrs Mazzucato (tweet chain):

  3. tuncali says:

    One of the most common symptoms of industrial paradigm:

    Talking about “healthcare” as if it were purely a human-made industrial service (drugs, operations, therapy etc.) offered by either state or private sector, completely disconnected from the environment, lifestyle, food, immune system and preventive public health policies.

    We know today that many deadly diseases including cancer are caused by environmental destruction and pollution like GMOs and pesticides, and also by lifestyle (f.e. not enough physical exercise), and also by unbalanced junk food.

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