What has innovation ever done for us?

Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

It is hard to escape from the word innovation; from CVs to performance appraisals and company mission statements, it is omnipresent. In the 1990’s it was synergy; in the 2000’s it was collaboration. Today the must use word is innovation.

The expression innovation has its origins in the Latin word Novus, new. Management guru Peter Drucker gives a contemporary definition of innovation.

Innovation starts with examining opportunities; it is more than just idea generation but the actual transfer of the idea into a revenue change. 1

Peter Drucker

Innovation is beyond just generating good ideas; it is the tangible conveyance of ideas into an increase in revenue for an organisation or a benefit to society. Innovation is the realisation of value from concepts and designs.

The past two hundred years have witnessed an extraordinary period of innovation, driven by scientific advancement. Scientific progression has resulted in changes in industry which today are named the “industrial revolutions” 2. These industrial revolutions, powered by science and innovation, have transformed life on earth, with exponential growth in world GDP and the single most significant benefit to humanity, the increase in life expectancy. World life expectancy grew from 29 years in 1800 to 73 years in 2019.

Each day I take my morning stroll through the mega graveyard that is Dublin’s Glasnevin Prospect cemetery. First opened in 1832, the headstones make chilling reading. The testimony to infant and childhood mortality is all-pervading and unfathomable to me, a twenty-first-century father.

The innovations of the last 200 years have brought humanity countless benefits. As industrial growth continued into the twentieth century, life expectancy more than doubled, literacy increased from 20 per cent to over 90 per cent, and benefits sprang up in the form of products and services, with advances in medicine, communication, education, and entertainment 3. A conservative estimate puts the number of lives saved by advances in medical science during this period at 5 billion. The scourge of the smallpox virus is gone, a killer of 300 million people in the 20th century.4Today, the emphasis of innovation and scientific endeavour must unite on the harmful environmental effects of the industrial revolutions’. These ecological degradations, global warming, rising oceans, and widespread pollution threaten to make the planet less hospitable for future generations unless we act now. 5

Progress has greatly enhanced conditions for humanity over the last two hundred years. The achievements have been stupendous. Knowledge and its transfer into value for society through innovation has made us better off. Can innovation and scientific advancement continue their relentless progress and solve the looming crisis of climate change?

I believe history tells us they can.


1. Drucker PF(F. Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and principles. Rev. ed. ed. Amsterdam; London: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2007.

2. Lasi H, Fettke P, Kemper H, Feld T, Hoffmann M. Industry 4.0. Business & Information Systems Engineering. 2014;6(4):239.

3. Senge PM. The necessary revolution: Working together to create a sustainable world. 1st pbk. ed. ed. New York: Broadway Books; 2010.

4. Pinker S. Enlightenment now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. Penguin; 2018.

5. Harari YN. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. ©2011; 2015.

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