Ask different people to define what “innovation” is, and you would likely get a different answer each time. For example, some might say that it essentially turns an idea into a solution that adds value for a customer. Or another might say that it is the application of novel and valuable ideas. Or it might be a more general statement such as it is the process of staying relevant. You may also get a more detailed answer, such as innovation is a great idea, being executed brilliantly via communication that is both intuitive and true to an initial concept.
The Cambridge Dictionary states that innovation is “a new idea or method, or the use of new ideas and methods”. These new ideas have no specific genre and can be very simple or incredibly complex. The ideas being put into practice may concern new goods or affect new services. Most people probably think that innovation takes the form of a more effective process, product, service, technology or even a work of art, and I would mostly agree.
Depending on the semantics around the word innovation, it can be separated from the word invention. It is fair to say that invention tends to relate to the end output of an innovative idea. So, an invention would be the creation of a new product. In contrast, innovation may be simply adding value to already existing products. An invention itself may require a particular scientific skill.
In contrast, innovation may be broader and include marketing and strategic talents. It is probably fair to say that invention is a more specific outcome related to a single product and or process. In contrast, innovation is broader and the evolution or even revolution of an existing product in a marketplace.
Some argue that innovation can be broken down into four main categories. These are “radical innovation”, “architectural innovation”, “modular innovation”, and finally, “incremental innovation”. Whether you subscribe to a precise definition of innovation or simply a broader understanding of progress related to, for example, a product, the subject of innovation has been around for millennia. In ancient Greece, Greek philosopher, and historian Xenophon, spoke many times of the need for innovation. More recently, in Machiavelli’s The Prince, strategies were suggested for a Prince to “win”, these being seen as a new and “innovative approach to politics”. In a more modern-day setting, in the 20th century, WWII saw various innovations related to warfare itself and the related economic outcomes that followed.
There are currently many different measurements for ranking innovation on a business-to-business or country-to-country level. When looking at countries, one of the innovation indexes referenced is the Bloomberg Innovation Index. In the latest 2021 Bloomberg Innovation Index, South Korea comes out on top, ranking 90.49 out of 100. With Singapore, Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden making up the top 5. Another well-known innovation index is The Global Innovation Index. In 2020, Switzerland took first place with Sweden, the United States, the United Kingdom and finally the Netherlands, coming together to create the top 5. Finally, the Innovation Incubator Index from 2020 saw Switzerland taking the top spot, with Singapore, Belgium, Germany, and Sweden making the top 5.
Moving from the country level down to the business level, it is argued that the current most innovative and disruptive technologies are the mobile internet, cloud and IoT computing, advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles and finally, 3D printing. Currently, 31% believe that research and development departments result in the most innovation. A simple example of the manifestation of innovation can be seen in the price of the fastest supercomputer in 1975, being $5 million. Fast forward to 2013, and the cost of an iPhone 4 was $400, and it contained the equivalent computing power.
When looking at more substantial milestones in history (and the number of people that they reached and the lives they improved), one can see that the Printing Press was created, then the Steam Engine, then the mass production of steel and the Internal Combustion Engine, and then far more recently, The Internet. All these former innovations have led to significant human progress. This is probably why four out of five current American CEOs rank innovation as having the most significant impact on their business. It is no surprise then that the most high-tech companies in the world almost always have a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) or a comparable position.
When looking at a micro level, as opposed to the macro country level, innovation leaders say the following things when questioned about what they believe leads to innovative outcomes. The most common answer is that they “aspire” to innovate, closely followed by a desire to “discover” whether specific results are possible. Another popular opinion regarding successful innovation is the belief that “mobilising” towards a collective goal is highly valuable.
It is believed that roughly 70% of the ideas for innovation come from one’s immediate environment, suggesting that a simple change in routine and “some more variety” could lead to broader experiences and more significant innovation. It is also argued that there needs to be visual communication for innovation to express and explore ideas. Using images and shapes, as opposed to simple text, can often lead to more creative thinking. A simple change in an approach to innovation, for example, believing that something is no longer “impossible” but is yet to be fully understood, can lead to finding potential avenues for success.
If we look back throughout history, current innovation must have seemed entirely impossible to the likes of, for example, the Egyptians more than 8000 years ago. During this period, the Egyptians developed grain agriculture and broader agriculture growing in the Americas, such as the domestication of crops including corn, beans, potatoes, and peppers. Even further back, in southwestern Asia, wheat and barley were being cultivated alongside goats and sheep. In Mesopotamia, around 5500 BC, successful irrigation techniques led to increased agricultural output and, ultimately, the rise of cities.
In more modern practices, crops began to be rotated yearly, with fields being left unplanted to recover for the subsequent yield. In the mid-1400s, explorers began introducing agriculture and plants to different parts of the world. This included Asia, Europe, and the Americas, with the formerly mentioned potatoes, corn, beans, and tomatoes being traded across civilisations. In the late-1700, the selective breeding of cattle and sheep led to healthier heavier animals that provided a higher meat yield. In 1834 in the United States, the ‘grain harvesting machine’ was patented, with the ‘steel plough’ following not long after in 1837.
By the early-1890s, the first gasoline power tractors were built, and agricultural mechanisation began. Before the 1900s, increased use of the railroad and steamship led to the opening of new markets and more significant agrarian growth. In the 1920’s better disease control measures, nutrition, and breeding practices further improved livestock production. This improvement also stretches to scientists improving seed yields via enhanced seed quality. In 1935 electricity became more readily available in rural areas, which had a significant impact on farming.
By 1939, chemical pesticides were becoming more widespread in developing countries, further enabling agricultural growth. Finally, to the modern-day, as early as 2000, farmers in developed countries began to keep computer accounts of their agrarian records. However, arguably, the most significant modern improvement regarding agriculture is probably the somewhat divisive genetic modification. This allows the best qualities of various seeds to be combined and fertilisers, enabling substantial yield increases. This all comes together to result in the genetically engineered seeds and plants being far more resistant to disease etc.
Approximately 57% of the land is used for agriculture in the present-day United Kingdom, with 5.4% of the land being used to grow crops. It is estimated that there are roughly 280,000 farms in the UK, with East Anglia the top producing region. East Anglia is responsible for producing enough barley to make approximately 2 1/2 million pints of beer each year. The UK also produces almost 8 million tonnes of wheat for bread making annually and 5.5 million tonnes of potatoes. Modern innovation means that the 5.5 million tonnes of potatoes grown each year can create roughly 28 billion packs of crisps. Infrastructure innovation has said that many of our agricultural outputs are exported. Still, much of it is eaten in the UK, with 60% of the UK grown food being consumed here. Currently, the most valuable crop produced in the UK is cereals (collectively) at almost 3 billion, with vegetables (collectively), potatoes, oilseed rape, and finally fruit, creating the top 5. It is believed that nearly 14 billion pounds are spent on goods and services in the farming sector each year. Even more is spent on the UK “Agritech” sector, contributing over 14 billion to the UK economy each year. Agritech is a new and broad arena, but even “old” inventions such as the tractor can do the work of 100 people a week. More modern iterations of Agritech are even more beneficial, such as automated picking, sorting, and packing of fruit and vegetables.
Where will the next significant agricultural innovation take us?