by Cathy Dunn and Phil Allcock

What is innovation?

So then, what is innovation? We’ll start with a couple of dictionary definitions. First of what it is to innovate:


Make changes in something established; especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products

And then of innovation:


A creation (a new device or process) resulting from study and experimentation

So what does that mean from a business perspective? It means studying what’s going on, what’s possible and then

  • Introducing new products into existing markets
  • Introducing established products into new markets
  • Introducing new ways of delivering existing products that bring benefits in terms of customers’ satisfaction and/or of profitability
  • Using new technology to do any of the above
  • Changing the way we think of, and treat, something that we thought of as a waste product and turning it into a useful resource
  • Challenging the way that people think about something familiar and, as a result, persuading them that something new is possible.

The important thing to recognise about innovation is that it’s not just about great ideas, it’s also, crucially, about putting them into practice and getting a result.

  • Below are some examples you may or may not be aware of.
  • James Dyson noticed that his Hoover wasn’t very efficient. He then noticed how efficiently a vortex extractor removed sawdust from the air in a local saw mill, borrowed the idea and put it into his Dyson cleaner. The rest is, as they say, history.
  • The scientist at Continental Tyres noticed that when a cat jumped from a wall or tree it was able to land smoothly and then keep running. They found out that the structure of the pads on a cat’s paws enabled it to absorb impact, so they incorporated the same features into the design of their tyres.
  • A brewing company had what seemed to be two problems. The first was the rising cost of putting fuel in the ‘drays’ (lorries to me and you) that delivered beer to their pubs and restaurants. The second problem was what to do with all the cooking oil left over from frying chips and so on in those same pubs and restaurants. The innovation? To get the ‘drays’ to collect the waste cooking oil when they dropped off the beer. The oil was then cleaned and this alternative bio-fuel was used to run the dray fleet.
  • In the early 2000s, a Dutch town tried a brave experiment. They removed all the road signs and other ‘street furniture’ from their streets. Rather than the chaos that you might have expected, they found that traffic moved more efficiently and there weren’t the accidents that people had feared. What happened was that people started use their own judgement more while driving. They began letting people out in front of them when it made sense to do so and slowing down when the situation required. The experiment was so successful that its results are now being used to change street scenes in the UK. If you go to Ashford, in Kent, for instance, you’ll find a good example.
  • BP’s response to the threat of rising CO2 levels has been to collect CO2 created by their operations and pump it back into oil and gas reservoirs. This has twin benefits: first, the collected gas forces out the remaining oil/gas reserves and second, the former are then trapped underground rather than entering the atmosphere.
  • People involved with product/resource distribution have been studying ants, to see how they explore a large area most efficiently, in search of food.