Choosing our words wisely

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It is one of those words that, through its overuse by bureaucrats, politicians and other members of the snake-charming family, loses its meaning in the company of rational men and women. That’s precisely why it is so easily misunderstood.

Still, we are informed, there can be no higher road on which to travel, no finer boulevard on which to set forth than the path of innovation. Wisdom’s lengthy annals are replete with expert advice on the subject.

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd,” said Winston Churchill. “Without innovation, it is a corpse.”

Naturally, Bill Gates would concur. “I believe in innovation,” he once opined. “The way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.”

On the other hand, Steve Jobs argued that “innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

At the same time, he added, “innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.”

Meanwhile, America’s very own Commander and Chief Innovator, Barack Obama, put it this way: “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”

Clever, to be sure. But I wonder whether we are any closer for having perused the witticisms to understanding what innovation really means.

Certainly, the dictionary is of no help. One of them defines the word as simply “the act of introducing something new; something newly introduced.”

Other terms, similar in meaning, include: invention, excogitation, conception, design, creative thinking, creativeness, creativity, concoction, and contrivance.

Then again, innovation can also mean change, revolution, departure, transformation, and upheaval.

In fact, it may just be that real innovation has as much to do with the tearing down of things than with their building up; that true innovation is not so much an act of generosity than it is one of brutal, protean self-expression.

Innovation is dangerous, and that scares bureaucrats, politicians and other members of the snake-charming family, who dress it up in its Sunday finest and park it in the parlor when gentlemen entrepreneurs come calling for government “investments”.

But, on the subject of innovation, at least one famous private enterpriser knows what he’s talking about. Here’s what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told a gathering of his assorted acolytes in October:

“Without a willingness to fail, you cannot innovate because most innovations won’t work. . .I cannot overstate how important (the) incremental innovation is. But for the big innovation, you have to be willing to fail. Every startup company faces that. Even big companies, like Boeing building the 787, face this. . .Use the critics as a mirror and ask if they are right. If they are right, then you change. If you think you don’t agree, then you should be stubborn on your vision. Part of being an inventor is that you have to have stubborn enough visions that many will think are wrong.”

We have, in New Brunswick (and, lately, in Canada as a whole), a tendency to think that failure of any sort is not worth the risk of taking a chance; even when, by not taking a chance, we risk almost certain disaster anyway.

What are our elected leaders actually doing that is at all innovative about the fiscal morass in which we find ourselves? What actual steps are they taking to generate real diversity into the local and so-called knowledge-based sectors of the economy?

Words are talismans. They possess the power to transform – to destroy and to remake the world – if we are innovative enough to let them.

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