Do you recognize innovation?

CooktopComputer chips are faster today than they were five years ago. The cars we drive now are safer than the cars our grandparents drove. Since the industrial revolution life in the modern world has become increasingly easier. Is this the result of innovations or merely progress as usual?

Innovation is a much sought-after but elusive quality. Companies are trying to encourage it, creative people are revered for displaying it, but how do you recognize innovation?

Suppose a designer makes a product improvement that increases sales by 10,000 units. Do you reward the designer for her innovativeness? What about another improvement that increases sales by 5,000 units? Does that qualify for innovation? The quantitative criteria we use to measure success lends itself poorly to measuring an abstract quality such as innovation. How would you even devise a scale to measure the satisfaction a user experiences when an innovative product makes his life easier?

Here's an example: K├╝ppersbusch is a company that makes kitchen appliances such as ovens and cooktops (hobs). Their latest product is the Induction-Top, a cooktop based on the principle of electromagnetic induction. It cooks without an open flame, is twice as fast as gas, more efficient than electric, cool to the touch even when on, and turns off automatically when the cooking pot is removed from the induction zone. Imagine that!

But is it an innovation? Michael Faraday is generally credited with having discovered the induction phenomenon in 1831. Cooktops hardly pass for an innovation either. However, when the two are combined the result is a truly innovative product. No more fire hazards or burnt fingers. Instant heat, all of which goes into the pot instead of dissipating in the kitchen. It looks very sleek and modern too.

Here the innovation is not about inventing a new technology. It's about applying a well-known method to an age-old problem. Yet from the end-user's point of view it is as close to magic as you can get.