New York Times Misunderstands Innovation

November 17th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Last week the New York Times ran a brief piece on the efforts of the Kauffman Foundation to contribute to knowledge on innovation.  Short articles (and short blog posts) do leave out details for the sake of brevity, but the shortcomings of this piece could be misleading to its readership.

The piece raises a good question: how can foundations assist in the innovation challenge?  The Kauffman Foundation, focused on entrepreneurship (which should be clear from anyone who reads their website), has committed a great deal of its resources to conduct research on entrepreneurship and its relationship to innovation.

The Times piece swings at its first strike by equating the two.  They are most certainly related, but entrepreneurship is simply a part of innovation.  Similarly, the piece gets the invention/innovation distinction wrong in a misguided attempt at oversimplification.  From the article:

“Definitions of innovation vary widely, but in the current context a crucial distinction needs to be made between invention and innovation. Invention is coming up with the breakthrough idea, and foundations focused on science and technology typically support those ambitious quests, from H.I.V. vaccines (the Gates Foundation) to hyper-efficient cars (the X Prize Foundation).

Innovation is the process that translates knowledge into economic growth and social well-being. Invention is science, innovation is economics.”

This facile characterization fails to get at a great deal of innovation by focusing on what might be called a “Great Idea” theory of innovation (similar to the generally discredited “Great Man” theory of history).  Innovation is somehow a single economic process handled by small firms and single entrepreneurs instead of the quirky interaction of knowledge, policy, communities and opportunities that produce successful processes, services, items and ideas that are diffused throughout society.  I don’t think so.  Strike two.

The piece strikes out swinging by presuming that business-school oriented innovation research is all the innovation research there is.  The absence of Schumpeterian analysis in the economics mentioned in the piece is not surprising, as a good reading of Schumpeter would have understood that innovation is not limited to entrepreneurs.  While those working in science and technology policy research are familiar with innovation, I suspect they are not as familiar with their colleagues in the academic business literature (and vice versa).  Perhaps I expect too much from the New York Times, but this pieces confuses the reader about innovation, detracting from its explanation of the good work of the Kauffman Foundation.

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