Innovation That Matters

What is innovation?

Innovation Snapshot

Innovation is hard to define. Here are three ways to think about it.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be digging into the concept of innovation – how organisations can apply it to drive positive change within teams, to develop new products, or to completely shake up business strategy. But first, we wanted to think about what it is exactly. This week our Commissioning Editor (and history fan) Matt Hempstead takes us on a journey from the 9th century through to the climate transition to consider where innovation comes from.

I like to think about innovation as a transaction between the past and future. Humanity has accumulated a mass of knowledge during its history, but this corpus of information is widely dispersed. Innovation is the process of finding the ideas that are relevant and applying them to tomorrow’s problems.

Innovation has existed in every period of human history. For example, the question of just how innovative the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon king Alfred of Wessex was is a serious bone of contention for early medieval British historians. And bizarre as it may seem, this seemingly stuffy academic debate has a lot to teach us about how we define innovation in today’s world.

King Alfred (later known as ‘the Great’) is credited – by his contemporary boosters and by later historians alike – with turning the tide against the marauding Vikings by creating a network of cunningly located fortresses across his West Saxon kingdom. On a surface reading of the sources, this was a singular act of prophetic strategic vision on Alfred’s part. But sceptical modern historians question how original these developments really were. Had not an earlier sequence of Anglo-Saxon kings engaged in fortress building back in the 8th century? And surely some of the fortresses credited to Alfred must have been initiated by his immediate predecessors? The one thing everyone agrees on is that he does seem to be the first to knit multiple fortresses together into a coherent network properly manned by a garrison of soldiers.

1. ReinvigoRation

This brings us to our first way of thinking about innovation. You can make a good case that innovation is often the process of taking an existing idea and giving it new life – just like Alfred taking existing fortresses and creating a new defensive system to beat the Vikings.

Fast forward 12 centuries and there are lots of examples that support this definition of innovation. Take long-duration energy storage, something that will be key to the energy transition. To date, the only grid-level energy storage technology that has existed at scale is pumped hydro. This is a technology where water is pumped to the top of a dam using excess energy during times of surplus. The water is then allowed to run back down the hill through a turbine when extra energy is needed. As a technology it is neither new nor shiny – the US installed its first large-scale pumped hydro system in 1929 – so it hardly seems like a great innovation case study.

However, RheEnergise, a company we have previously featured on Springwise is applying the idea of pumped hydro in a new way. One of the key limitations of the technology is that you need a very tall mountain and a lot of capital to make it work. RheEnergise’s insight is that you can do pumped hydro more cheaply and on much smaller hills if you use a dense, hi-tech fluid in place of water. And other innovators are pursuing more radical iterations of what is essentially the same concept. Gravity-based storage systems, which are being developed by companies like Energy Vault, lift solid blocks, rather than fluids, to a height before allowing them to fall back to earth when energy is needed. And, rather than building a tower to do this, yet more innovators, such as Green Gravity, are enlisting disused mine shafts and even old oil wells as the infrastructure for their gravity-based technologies.

Photo credit: RheEnergise. The startup is reinvigorating pumped hydro by using hi-tech fluid in place of water.

2. Cross-pollination

Often, the inspiration for implementing an old idea in a new way comes not from within an industry, but from much further afield. Creative technologist Jude Pullen, a veteran engineer from LEGO, Dyson, and Sugru, who spoke to Springwise for an in-depth feature that will be published this week, explains that “there was a phrase in LEGO of ‘never before seen in play’. The key thing is that this doesn’t mean ‘never before seen on the face of the planet.’”

Perhaps the most high-profile recent example of innovation by cross-pollination comes from the buzzy topic of AI. Nvidia’s GPU chips, which have become the industry standard for training and running AI models, were originally designed for video game graphics. And there are many other examples in the Springwise library of a technology from one industry being re-applied in a new one.

For example, in the field of green hydrogen, proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysers are one of the two dominant technologies. And at the core of PEM electrolysers are catalyst coated membranes, or CCMs. These are made up of materials that speed up a chemical reaction, which are then applied to a solid membrane. Using technology originally pioneered in the semiconductor industry, New Zealand startup Bspkl produces CCMs using up to 25 times less catalyst material than existing processes. 

3. Radical incremental improvement

Innovation is often envisioned as an unexpected bolt-from-the-blue, or a ‘Eureka’ moment. But this is far from always the case – often it is more of a grind. Enormous breakthroughs in performance sometimes come from an intense and concerted focus on a problem with a particular outcome in mind. In the world of cleantech, for example, investors talk about learning rates or learning curves. The idea is that if you can make a technology modular and manufacture it over and over again, then the small adjustments you make each time can add up, like compound interest, to radical innovation.

Perhaps the quintessential recent example of this is solar power. Believe it or not, the very first solar cell was invented as far back 1883, and solar cells made from silicon have a lineage that goes back to Bell Labs in the 1950s. However, the imperative of the climate crisis has focused minds in recent decades on improving the efficiency and reducing the costs of solar power – and this has yielded extraordinary results. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), solar PV module prices have fallen by around 90 per cent since the end of 2009.

Today, we are continuing to see development in solar power, including emerging ‘next-generation’ technologies. For example, MIT spinout Active Surfaces has developed solar modules that are around 120 times lighter than today’s systems and reduce structural costs significantly. Their ultra-light weight makes them usable in relatively small and oddly shaped spaces, of which there are many in cities – from balconies and older roofs to public buildings and transport.  

If you’re looking for even more inspiration, dive into over 14,000 more innovations in the Springwise Library. And for daily, weekly, or monthly innovation insights, why not sign up to our free newsletters and get these groundbreaking innovations direct to your inbox?

Written By: Matthew Hempstead