Can you have too much innovation?

We are sitting here in NESTA’s office in the city of London surrounded by financial chaos, much of it arguably occasioned by unrestrained innovation.  For a more qualified view than mine see Chander Velu’s article here.  There is a new mantra of business nowadays, best summed up by the Economist: "Innovation is now recognised as the single most important ingredient in any modern economy".

The interesting question is can you have too much of a good thing?  We will see where the new balance of regulation versus free markets ends up in financial services but in the meantime it is interesting to note the history of innovation itself from devil to darling to disaster. 

I saw a presentation at the British Academy of Management conference recently which addressed this entitled ‘When did innovation become strategic?’ given by Ian Stewart of Birmingham City University . He charts the rehabilitation of innovation which, for 400 years, was seen as a form of deviance (for which you could be killed) through various subsequent stages.  These include uncomfortable pragmatism, innovation as an organisational reflex and utlimately lead to the current state of innovation as strategic and fundamental to how organisations operate.

The moral of this story? Those that are working to promote innovation such as we at NESTA need to bear in mind that it wouldn’t take too much for us to be defending a discredited mantra rather than riding an unstoppable wave. 


  1. I think its a question of quality of innovation rather than quantity David. There is no better example of “unsustainable” innovation than that which has led us to the current financial crises. What we need is more sustainable innovation of a strategic and long-term nature that addresses the fundamental challenges of our time and less innovation for a fast buck, a ‘new’ snack or credit card. I think our job as innovation agents is to help make this change and educate and demonstrate that we can solve seemingly intractable and systemic problems if we are prepared to innovate and collaborate across traditionally divides and we have nothing to fear or lose by so doing. Brendan at “How To Farm Lightning: sustainable innovation”

  2. Very thought-provoking. I’m becoming quite dubious about what sometimes feels like a cult of innovation as if it is inherently good.
    I’m left wondering innovation *for what?* It’s easy to talk innovation but maybe it’s hard to agree on real purposes…

  3. The definition of innovation that I most like is “creative destruction” which I think comes from Schumpeter. I like it because it doesn’t try to hide from the inevitable consequences of innovation for the industries that are “left behind”.
    There is no guarantee that any given innovation will succeed or even that if it does succeed that it will last. We have an economy that needs growth: if we do not innovate we will not grow (unless we find more oil or gold somewhere). What is clear to me is that if there is radical innovation in a regulated market, the the regulation or supervision must keep pace.

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