Invention vs. innovation – Edison meets Tesla?

We hear the word “innovation” regularly in discussions about the role of universities, and in particular in Canada where there is said to be an “innovation gap” in the economy. Building on a previous piece, in the following post I raise the rivalry between Edison and Tesla, since those two figures are oft-cited in the discussion of how scientific advances happen and how they’re turned into commercial success. Here is a link to the original post, from November 28, 2011: Invention vs. innovation – Edison meets Tesla?

After the post I wrote recently about innovation, I noticed that yet more articles have been popping up in the wake of the report I was discussing, including this one by Tom Jenkins who was part of the team that produced the report.

Then as I listening to Radio NZ recently, I heard a BBC history segment on the relationship between Edison and Tesla, and some of Tesla’s attitudes made me think of the way Edison’s example is invoked by Jenkins both in the report and in his article.

There is a long and complex story behind the relationship between Tesla and Edison, but suffice to say that after one of their conflicts Tesla ended up digging ditches for a while. In any case, Tesla apparently regarded Edison as a mere tinkerer, someone who purchased, and marginally improved on, the things others had created. Tesla’s assessment may have been drawing a line between discovery and invention, rather than between invention and innovation. Edison pioneered a kind of production-line process using many assistants; he also raised capital before embarking on a venture (sound familiar?).

From this description it seems to me that Edison was an entrepreneur, while Tesla was more of a scientist. And in the end, Tesla’s work is still with us, in spite of Edison’s PR campaign against him during the “War of Currents.” Politics was indeed at play.

Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has also chimed in on the innovation issue, with an article about Steve Jobs as consummate “innovator.” Martin also argued earlier this year that SSHRC had shortchanged MBA students by not offering them designated funding (even though this is not how it works for other disciplines; and MBAs don’t usually do academic research). Clearly the arguments about “innovation” are also arguments about resource distribution. Policies have been critiqued as failing, but this isn’t enough for advocates to leave off asking for government funding and planning of R&D.

James Colliander, a math professor at U of T, has responded with a blog post in which he argues that the point about Steve Jobs is off the mark, since rather than producing original scientific or technological advances, Jobs produced original synthesis and design.

So it seems we’re still stuck on the notion of innovation as a means of producing marketable objects and processes, or so I gather from quotes like this one (from Martin): “commercial success and impact is more about innovation than about invention.” While this “is typically the product of the curiosity of a scientist”, “it can be pretty irrelevant when it is a technology in search of a user.”

It’s interesting to see, over in the UK, inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson is funding a new professorship at Cambridge. Dyson is arguing that even when we don’t know where research is going, it’s important to invest in it, especially when the government is cutting back. It may seem like a shame we live in an era when the noblesse oblige of large corporations and private foundations is what we must rely on. But at the same time, government intervention as a primary mobiliser of science and technology is relatively new in history, and discovery and innovation have not usually occurred in just one isolated environment.

Arnold Pacey argues in his book The Maze of Ingenuity that the environments in which scientific discovery and innovation take place are those where there is generally more than merely a monetary motivation for the great scientific discoveries of the past; such environments were also sheltered from full exposure to market forces. So somehow science must always be “protected” both from the market and also (Dyson’s view) from undue political intervention, which itself is now linked directly to economic development.

I would argue that it’s not a question of whether scientists, business, or the government are good at “picking winners.” The issue of needing to pick a “winner” at all is the problem. I’ve quoted James Burke more than once in some of my previous blog posts (including the last one!), but here he is again, discussing the unpredictable and non-linear nature of “discovery.” I still question the use of these definitions of terms and the narratives they’re being used to construct, which are split along the old lines — applied, theoretical; practical, “speculative;” and so on. What would be truly “innovative” to me would be a change to the discussion so that these definitions were no longer the only categories available.

Contemplation of innovation

This post takes a look at the report produced by a government panel led by Tom Jenkins, placing the report in the context of decades of Canadian government policy and critiques about “lack of innovation” and the low level of research done by Canadian industry. Here is a link to the original post from October 31, 2011: Contemplation of innovation.

A new panel on research and development (R&D) and innovation led by Tom Jenkins, executive chairman of OpenText Corp., has produced a report entitled “Innovation Canada: A call to action.” The 6-member panel has recommended “a radical overhaul that includes the creation of a new funding council and transforms the country’s largest research entity, the billion dollar National Research Council.”

I think the report is interesting not only because of its potential influence on changes to the Canadian research landscape, but also because what’s being reiterated is in many ways the same story that has been told about Canadian R&D for over 50 years.

The evident goal of the panel’s proposals is to facilitate the “triple helix” of university-industry-government relations (Benner & Sandström, 2000Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000). One example is the recommended creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council, which “would be an arm’s-length funding agency to help entrepreneurs bring ideas to the marketplace.” So the report fits well with the federal government’s Science and Technology (S&T) policy document from 2007, which takes as its aim the construction of a Canadian knowledge infrastructure that integrates creation of human capital (i.e. a well-trained workforce) with the production of “innovation” through links between academic and business stakeholders.

Of course, the concept of “innovation” is imagined and translated in very specific ways. Peter MacKinnon invokes this logic when he states, “innovation drives productivity growth, which in turn enables Canada to compete globally and maintain our standard of living.” For this reason the “innovation problem” becomes a thorn in Canada’s side, and is by now taken as a given. What’s also a given is that the conversation about innovation continues, even in a self-conscious manner, without policy ever “solving” Canada’s problem. Canada does not “innovate”; its businesses do not invest in R&D, and its research institutes and universities fail to collaborate with industry. Therefore Canada will always fall behind its competitors.

Similar threads of critique have continued through decades of panels, commissions, and reports, some of them government-sponsored and others externally produced by universities, companies, and think-tanks. Past examples include the Glassco Commission of 1962, which criticized the NRC for lack of R&D collaboration with industry (Dufour & de la Mothe, 1993, pp. 12-14), and the Lamontaigne Commission of 1967-1977 which advocated for “permanent steps [to] be taken to bridge the gap between the academic and industrial sectors” (1968-77, vol. 2, p. 521, cited in Atkinson-Grosjean, House & Fisher, 2001, p.13).

To me it seems there’s something of a paradox in the fact that the government is expected to provide a solution to the problem of lack of private-sector innovation. One of the perennial questions from critics is: why do companies not invest in the R&D side in Canada? Could it be the “branch-plant economy,” the historical emphasis on manufacturing and natural resources, or some flaw in the national psyche? Whatever it is, the assumed role for governments is to provide the most hospitable environment possible for private R&D activities. Which leads to another major critique — that government investments in R&D never live up to their imagined potential in Canada. The argument is epitomized in Carol Goar’s comment that “for roughly 30 years, Ottawa has been pouring taxpayers’ dollars into Canada’s “innovation gap” — and achieving precious little.” Perpetual disappointment tends to be blamed on the private sector problem, or on the government for producing poor policy or trying to alter the market.

Every “innovation” is built on incremental discovery, but the notion of “discovery” itself is one we should consider carefully. What does it mean to “discover” something? What does mean for something to be “innovative”? Innovation policy deals with the economics of knowledge, where knowledge is assumed to be something that can and should be “economized” in this way. When the word “knowledge” appears in this context it’s clear that certain kinds of knowledge are (assumed to be) more closely related to “innovation” than others. What then does it mean to “discover” something that cannot be (immediately, obviously) economized? The parallels with critiques of education and its “outcomes” are not coincidental.

These are questions I’m not equipped to answer — but I do believe that “innovation” and “knowledge,” like “creativity,” are slippery words subject to narrow interpretations when convenient. When it comes to implementation, “innovation” will no longer be a rhetorical abstraction; it will be instrumentalized in some particular way. For this reason the language of policy is important; it tells us something about the way these difficult concepts are being implicitly defined, and how they will be realized in practice.