Innovation just a "buzzword"

By Guest Author 27/10/2010 3

by Dr John Robinson

Innovation is a buzzword of uncertain meaning used to hide an absence of ideas.


The question of just what is being referred to, and measured, is problematic. The problem is not just one of definition, but is inherent in the topic itself. As noted in the key OECD Oslo Manual, ’the complexity of the innovation process itself makes it difficult to establish absolutely precise guidelines.’ 1

’… innovation processes are concerned with inherent processes, which are characterised by uncertainty and imperfect information …’ 2

We should be careful and modest in drawing conclusions from the data. ’… the data derived from the CIS should be interpreted with greater caution than has hitherto been the case, particularly in policy documents.’ 3

’the evidence does suggest that ‘innovation’ (product or service) tends to have a less significant impact on sales than policy rhetoric might suggest.’ 4

’There is always a risk of exaggerating the potential of new technologies, and the boom in ICT investment was accompanied by hype in some quarters.’ Indeed, the Solow paradox is based on the observation that ’computers are everywhere except in the productivity data, was appropriate during much of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the rapid diffusion of computing technology seemed to have little impact on MFP growth.’ 5

’Yet these radical technological shifts are not being reflected in improvements in total factor productivity and in output growth rates.’ 6

Science is crippled and the scientific endeavour is destroyed when research is at the service of and controlled by an ideology.


Throughout history questioning science has struggled to break free from the straightjacket of enforced obedience to an outdated dominant set of rules, frequently ill-advised and harmful. Once the scientific establishment was split by disagreement over whether the earth circles the sun. The dominant ideology, controlled from Rome, held that earth must be the centre of all things. Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for championship of Copernicus, and Galileo was forced to retract his advocacy of Copernican theory by the Inquisition.

It is no different today. The major scientific — and indeed existential — question of our time is the overcrowding of the planet, the massive use of resources by humanity, the destruction of other species and the subsequent threat to modern civilisation and humanity. That issue is far more serious and much more important than any of the past. The question is not philosophical and religious — it is one of survival. The science of human civilisation on a finite planet is holistic and interdisciplinary in scope, far different from the narrow focus of disciplinary divisions.

But the governing ideology of our time is growth, that very growth that the interdisciplinary science of futures research calls to question. There was once such research, for a brief few years. I commenced research in this field with a study of ’The limits to growth’ in 1974 when I was a scientist at the Applied Mathematics Division of the DSIR. Not long after came the Commission for the Future (1978-82) and my work with many international organisations in Europe. That time is long gone, as have both the DSIR and the Commission for the Future.

Such interdisciplinary science is denied in New Zealand by the scientific establishment. The mission of the major funding agency (FoRST) is ’Actively growing value for New Zealand by investing for results from research and development’. The science budget is ’going commercial’ with the focus on ’linking science with business’. Calls for growth are everywhere. The idea of limits is not tolerated. Yet those limits dominate the reality of today and tomorrow.

Loose talk of innovation blurs the picture and conceals the obvious. The best outcome of this conference on Re-setting Science and Innovation for the next 20 years would be to dismiss the subject heading as irrelevant.

This meeting should pay attention to the concerns raised by Martin Lord Rees in his 2010 RSNZ Rutherford Memorial Lecture and the warning from Professor John Beddington, United Kingdom’s Chief Scientist, that ’we head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame’. There should be a positive, collective call for robust, holistic scientific research on the critical global situation, including our place as world citizens and independent scientists.

[1] OECD, ’Oslo Manual for Innovation Survey Measurement’, second edition, undated copy, page 14

[2] Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources, 1998, ’A new economic paradigm?  Innovation-based evolutionary systems’, Discussions of Science and Innovation 4, page 8

[3] Tether B, ’Identifying innovation, innovators and innovative behaviours: a critical assessment of the Community Innovation Survey (CIS)’, Centre for Research on Innovation and Competition, the University of Manchester, 2002, page 36

[4] Tether, page 35

[5] OECD, 2001, ’The new economy: beyond the hype: the OECD growth project’, pages 10 and 23

[6] OECD Oslo Manual, page 5

Dr John Robinson is a retired scientist who worked for the DSIR for a number of years. “For more than 35 years ago I identified the global future as the key scientific issue of our times and took up the challenge of understanding the changes under way. This proved a disastrous career move.”

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3 Responses to “Innovation just a "buzzword"”

  • John, while I agree with many of your points I would disagree that innovation IS just a buzz word, the problem is that it has been too often used to cover as you so cleverly put it “an absence of ideas”
    True innovation is also not necessarily attached to growth, in my opinion. Rather is is linked to improved and/or more efficient processes. Such processes are necessary in dealing with our global future.
    Science is always guided by some sort of ideology, whether it is a “blue skies” ideology or a commercially focused ideology. I don’t really think in the modern world science can be completely separated from the needs of the economy. Indeed this is an opportunity, through innovation, to influence the world in a positive way (IF as you so correctly point out we can get away from the philosophy of unrestrained growth i.e. increased need/use of resources)

  • John Robinson says: Science needs untrammelled thinking with clear reference to observation and events. And there is no way to influence the world in a positive way from the sidelines, out of the loop. The oil peak has come; the economy has crashed thanks to the dealings of excess capital. In true science we should all consider just whose forecasts have proved true to date, and which is the best way to understand what is happening. The opposite applies in New Zealand

  • John, I completely agree with you. So how is this best achieved? How do we get science off of the sidelines and into the loop?