At the end of a workshop on innovation which I recently facilitated with my co-author Maureen, I was asked about the difference between invention and innovation. I answered to the best of my knowledge by expressing what I know and think on the subject. Willing to investigate the matter further, I later searched the web to find out if there was a common understanding on these two terms. Well, I found out there is not. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the difference between invention and innovation is a matter of opinion. So let me share mine with you.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term invention comes from the Latin verb invenire: to devise, discover, find something new; whereas innovation comes from the Latin verb innovare: to renew, restore, change, meaning make changes in something established. It would therefore appear that invention is the brilliant, stroke of genius that discovers something new that did not exist before; the famous and so much looked for breakthrough. Innovation, on the other hand, would then be the progressive work of improvement to already existing things.
Having said this, when you think about how the two terms have evolved in time and how they are used today, innovation has assumed a larger meaning than its etymology implies. Today, it incorporates both the concept of breakthrough and progressive improvement. Conversely, invention has kept its character of a single act of creating something new. That something new does not necessarily or automatically possess any commercial value or stimulate the interest of people who might use it and benefit from it. An invention is often just the first step. You need the far longer term process of innovation to ensure that it changes people’s habits and replaces old behaviours with new ones.
This is exactly what you see when you go and visit an exhibition like the 43rd International Exhibition of Inventions which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from 15-19 April 2015: an extraordinary, kaleidoscopic and fascinating gathering of industrial and commercial companies, universities, inventors and researchers, associations, private and state institutes that present their inventions, the results of their research and their new products. You will find hundreds of great, odd, funny, serious, and sometimes puzzling ideas and a world of vibrant energy which is bound to stimulate your brain cells and entertain you. Even if you might wonder how many of those inventions are really useful and how many will make a difference, you will still come out of it feeling inspired and in awe of so much creativity.