The history of "innovation"

Wednesday, October 5, 2016
by Cameron Shelley

In his article "Technological innovation", Benoît Godin provides a history of the term innovation and its adoption in discourse about technological change. 

The history of the expression begins as a translation of a Greek term that referred to subversive novelties and was invariably negative in tone.  Early Christian authors used the new word, innovo, to refer to regeneration, a return to a better state of affairs from the past, clearly a positive connotation.

By the Reformation, the term was used to refer to heresy, as in the innovation of new forms of the Christian religion.  It carried this pejorative sense into the 19th century, in which communism could be disparaged as an "innovation" in the social order.

More recently, the term began to be applied as a way of characterizing technological progress.  In this capacity, it referred to practical inventions that "introduced the scientific method" into the practical arts.  This gave the term both a new focus on material technology and a positive connotation from association with science.

More recently, the term has become part of the current economic ideology in the form of "technological innovation."  That is, it denotes inventions that increase the utility of goods, which, in turn, stimulate economic growth.  In this sense, the ultimate stage of innovation is commercialization, which is how it is usually understood today.

Godin argues that the rise of technological innovation has allowed engineers to raise the social status of their discipline relative to the status of science.  On this view, engineering is not just a body of knowledge founded on science but an art of practical invention and economic advancement.  Innovation is a process, different than scientific research, by which this art is managed and accomplished.

Making this distinction has given engineers greater leverage when it comes to competing for funding from government policy makers.

The article provides a salutary reminder of the historical and political dimensions of technology and current attitudes towards it.