What’s in a name? The language of innovation

What’s in a name? The language of innovation

19.05.2016 | Liam Nicholls

As a relative newcomer to Creative Places, I might be forgiven for making the odd terminology slip up. Anyone entering a new role will be hit by a barrage of terminology, acronyms and seemingly incomprehensible collection of information. These are usually picked up by osmosis, and within weeks the TLAs are rolling off the tongue.

Often, this is specific to a firm, their systems, procedures and the embedded language of the office. However, one distinction I can make in my new role is that the language of innovation and the R&D sector is very different from any that I have had to tackle before.

We owe this perplexing diversity of terminology to the recent developments in the way companies are now innovating. The advent of open innovation has re-shuffled our understanding of how innovation works and brought a whole new breadth to the language of innovation. It is now far rarer for R&D to be conducted behind locked doors in large pharmaceutical facilities, and as such, in a fury of collaboration and excitement for the sector, no one has stopped to write the dictionary of innovation and commercial R&D. Each of the large players in the sector, including universities, hospitals and large pharmaceutical companies have brought their own dialogue to the mixing pot.

To contextualise this let’s take the term incubator. It might seem an easy concept to define. Peter’s et al use the term ‘a supportive environment for start-up and fledgling companies’ in 2004. On the face of it this might seem to cover it off.

If only it were that simple! In writing a recent demand study for Medcity, one of the key challenges we had was deciding where to draw the line between incubation services and provision of commercial space for R&D. The line is very blurry. Many ‘innovation centres’ provide incubation services rather than simply letting space. And we aren’t the only ones. Bergek and Norman attribute a large portion (8 pages!) of their 2008 paper on Incubator best practice to effectively defining the issue.

The issue of definition runs more deeply than how we define the type of space being occupied however. I would argue that there is a lack of industry standards for the pragmatic meanings of research, R&D, innovation and translation. The lines are blurry and not all are the same to all parties.

So should we seek to define these enigmatic terms? Does the lack of clarity which has bamboozled me for several months need to be conquered once and for all?

I am not sure it really should. My experience is that having to delve into these shades of grey not only make the sector more fascinating, but allow for the required flexibility and dynamism that the create the thriving industry we see today. Should the language of innovation not be dynamic and, well, innovative!