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Alain Sylvain speaking on stage at 99U Conference 2019 with NASA fashion images

Big Ideas

How the Practice of Innovation Has Been Diluted by Business (And How We Can Take It Back)

The true definition of innovation has been lost amid the chaos of our infatuation with the new. Alain Sylvain explores how we got here and what comes next.


The business world is obsessed with “innovation.” We’re appointing Chief Innovation Officers, attending innovation festivals, reading books and articles about it (case in point), taking courses on it, and, of course, posting on social media about it (#innovation!). It’s everywhere.

In many ways, this makes sense; in fact, our attraction to newness has been essential to the survival of our species. Humans are deeply curious creatures. It’s in our genetic code. Witnessing or acquiring something new gives our brains a hit of dopamine. It gets our blood pumping, priming our readiness to respond.

To be blunt, newness turns us on. We marvel, gawk, and even ogle at the newness of our modern innovations and innovators. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Google Glass, Pokémon GO, Snapchat, Alexa, cryptocurrency, self-driving cars, hoverboards, robot dogs, non-dairy milk, co-working spaces, home genetic testing… I could go on.

And sometimes, our obsession with these innovations borders on deviance – an unhealthy fetish that’s costing us. Take the iPhone, a common but perfect example. Many of us feel that we simply need the latest, most advanced device, even though our current (and probably our previous) device still works perfectly fine.

Due to its immense popularity in culture, spawned by brands that are desperately trying to resonate, “innovation” has become synonymous with our sense of cool. Adidas’ partnership with Kanye West for the new Ultra Boost sneakers, meme-crazy Apple AirPods, and NASA’s high-fashion streetwear are just a few examples.

But the true definition of innovation – something different that has true impact on human life – has been lost. Instead, innovation is now principally focused on spectacle over substance. It has become performative, celebrified, cinematic, and oddly pornographic. Major tech companies host lavish, invite-only conferences to reveal their latest products. Countless films glorify (predominantly male) innovators (A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Jobs). And take the outsized persona of Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX and The Boring Company, who dates supermodels, smokes weed on TV, and launched a car into space, just because he felt like it.

It’s no wonder we don’t know the real meaning of innovation is anymore.

Alain Sylvain speaking at 99U Conference 2019 about innovation with slide stating that innovation is meaningless

Alain Sylvain’s challenged attendees at the 2019 99U Conference to reclaim the concept of innovation to solve big design problems, with a healthy dose of self-awareness.

And as innovation consultants, we are just as much to blame as the brands and consumers that revel in this fantasyland. Our problem is that as an industry we’ve been posturing as magicians when we should be playing the role of advocate for our clients; We should be advocating for meaningful impact, not just for the new and flashy.

But in spite of all this, we can rest easy knowing that when innovation is done right, its importance is immeasurable. It’s still possible to get back there.

Think back to some of the world’s greatest innovations, the products that had seismic impact on our societies. Eyeglasses allowed humans to live productively even when their vision began to fail, the lightbulb made round-the-clock urban life possible, the airplane made the world accessible, the Model T assembly line made the automobile affordable and revolutionized mass production, birth control gave women agency over their own bodies and lives, hip-hop gave the politics of resistance a new language, internet search engines democratized information, and the iPhone put the entire internet in our pockets.  

As brands, consultants, and designers, we should be disturbed by the newly dulled meaning of innovation.

Innovation’s true practice must be restored, and a new code adopted. But how, when we’ve lost touch with the impact that it should have?

Don’t reduce it into a buzzword. Expand understanding by championing it as a rigorous process. Motown Records is a great example of how to do this. Inspired by his experience working for the Ford Motor Company, Berry Gordy applied the assembly line approach to music production and revolutionized the entire industry. Songs and talent were developed through a process that even included the industry’s first in-house finishing school to ensure that artists carried themselves with grace publicly.

Don’t keep your approach locked in a black box. Democratize the practice of innovation by sharing how you do it. Look to Google Ventures’ sprint model for inspiration, a process which was pressure tested with over 150 startups before being published in a book and shared with the world. Or Elon Musk’s Tesla Master Plan, which he shared online.

Don’t just talk about innovation, embody it through your actions. Beyoncé remains one of the biggest pop stars on the planet because she consistently challenges convention in her approach to performance and promotion. Lemonade was an epic visual album that was barely promoted. Coachella 2018 was defined by Beyoncé’s stunning homage to the culture of HBCUs, so much so that the festival was dubbed “Beychella.” Her performance, made into the film Homecoming, was the most viewed on YouTube Live ever.

Through a simple but staunch change in approach to innovation that prioritizes meaningful impact and turns a blind eye to its glitz and glamor, we may actually have a fighting chance at defeating tough global problems at hand.

Alain Sylvain

Alain is the founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs, a strategy and design consultancy and Certified B Corp. He led a master class at the 11th Annual 99U Conference in 2019.


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