Discovery, Invention and Innovation What are they ?



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Discovery, Invention and Innovation

What are they ?


  • Discovery is a new addition to knowledge. These are (normally) in the physical, biological or social sciences Theoretical knowledge is obtained from observations and experimental testing of hypotheses and practical knowledge from practice: e.g. the practical knowledge acquired by a workforce in making new machinery operate well.




  • Invention is a new device or process. Most inventions are minor improvements and do not qualify as patents. To qualify as a patent an invention must a pass a test of originality (i.e. is different from previous inventions). Only a small percentage of patents have any economic value.




  • Innovation is a better way of doing things. An innovation improves performance in goal-directed behaviour (e.g. re-election politics, personal lifestyle) as measured by a criterion (e.g. profit maximization).

Invention is NOT innovation. But, for example, the invention of spreadsheets can be applied as an innovation in business.


Many current innovations are the applications of software in (a) manufacturing (b) marketing and (c) governmental areas. However the application itself is not responsible for the improvement, but rather the paperwork process is re-designed to make use of the new technology. In business one carefully analyses the process to be replaced then asking what should be done to maximize profits. This is called “business re-organizing” or “business process re-engineering”.

Their Interactions


  • Invention is promoted by discovery (esp. in biology) whenas innovation is promoted by invention (esp. in industrial engineering and business).




  • As science advances it creates opportunities for new inventions. However to develop economic value massive knowledge can be needed (modern aeroplanes needed the development of the whole science of aerodynamics).



Incentives leading to the 3 types
Discovery, invention and innovation have very different incentives. These differences also create difficulties in transfer from one activity to another. Because the “cultures” are different, further “mixing incentives” are required.
Discovery: Fame.

Fame brings scientists rewards. “Free publication rights” is a scientists reward system, (be “the expert” in area no-one has ever heard of) but it promotes a free flow of ideas. When this gets mixed with other systems conflict results: several state-payed scientists have become very rich, other scientists say “I am a martyr to purity - just take my ideas”.


Invention: Property (intellectual)

There are 3 major forms; patents, copyright & trade secrets. Without these rights competitors would immediately copy your ideas, but without the initial costs their “product” would always be cheaper - so taking up new ideas would always be economic suicide ! Laws around IP change with time (e.g. copyright originally covered books, but now also covers software).


Innovation: Better performance.

Here there are no formal rights. Thus imitators copy anything appearing promising. Innovation is measured by “benchmarking” - comparison of your performance with the rest of the world.



Evolution of the 3 types
Innovation has always been an aspect of Human development, since “before the wheel”.
Patents etc are a new - purely legal - development.
Discovery started as a rationalization of myth (William of Occam, a British gelehter in Koln between ca 1300-1350) but remained the domain of “blood, blood, sweat, more blood, tears & even more blood” until the 1700s Age of Reason). Britains liberal immigration policy (from Henry VIII, ca 1500) was a magnet in attracting those individuals who confronted intellectual social/religious barriers elsewhere in Europe. The peak was in the late 1700s when the Industrial Revolution in Britain coincided with the 30 Years Embargo due to the Napoleonic Wars, leading to a refined industrial society needing only markets (selling opportunities) to expand explosively (leading to “gunboat diplomacy”).
In this time and later (compulsory universal education from 1888 & free university education for all from 1945) in Britain kicked discovery into high gear. This was helped enormously by the “export of values”, especially to the USA.
The enormous ecological and economical diversity of the USA lead to enormous resource availability when needed. Especially WWII lead to principle discoveries in GB (and USA) but esp. enormous applications in the USA (esp. in management, see “just-in-time” in relationship to D-Day).
Very important USA incentives include: acceptance of startups, state support for new industries, venture capital, consortia, support for technology-transfer and incubators.
Question: have you see the web-sites of: SAIC, EDS, Smithsonian “innovation network” and Yahoos innovation consortia.

How: Strategies
Strategies are divided into two types; improvisatory and separation.
1. Improvisatory means trial-and-error. In the 1800s learning how to succeed was try it and see, meaning that an innovator was learning and trying to achieve better performance at the same time. E.g. installing new machinery and simultaneously learning how to use it whilst producing products.


  1. This is the scenario in esp. agricultural progress where research is performed at government stations before being transmitted to the farmer, or a pharmaceutical firm will have extensive tests before releasing a product. Thus the strategy is to separate discovery from use.


Question: What strategies do government/administrative/public/health institutions have ?
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