Invention vs Innovation

The terms invention and innovation are, more often than not, considered to be synonymous and used interchangeably. This creates confusion for everyone. Innovation can refer to an artefact; e.g., an innovation, or to the process of innovating. Both terms infer the involvement of an actor, an inventor or an innovator, who proactively and purposefully engages in inventing and innovating. Today, those who succeed as inventors and/or innovators are venerated, particular by large corporations, state and regional governments, because they generate competitive advantage and stimulate economic growth. Here I will describe what I feel the difference to be. Inventing first.


You all know clay is slippery when wet. Knowing this is not inventing. However, making use of the material property ‘slipperyness’ is. When slipperyness, this discovered property of the clay-water mix, is made use of, for example, as a lubricant, then this is an inventive step. This is a principle of extreme inventing—the incorporation of a property (slipperyness) into an activity, which then becomes a technical system in which the property is used to effect. We can then say that wet clay has a function—lubrication. Mud drilling, is a perfect example. The wet clay lubricant, the mud in drilling, becomes an additional component of a system. Without the lubricant, the system’s performance would be considerably inferior.

To discover that when a large chunk of obsidian is shattered some of the pieces so produced have sharp edges, is not inventing. Neither is discovering that the sharp pieces can cut one’s hand. What does constitute an invention is making use of the ‘sharpness’ of the obsidian to cut another object which, as a consequence of its cutting, becomes socially useful and hence of economic value. Below right is an example of what I mean.The piece of sharp stone/flint becomes a socially useful tool because it enables cutting of an animal carcass.

In the act of using the ‘sharpness’ property, relations are established between the sharp object, the wielder of it, and the object on which the sharpness acts. These relationships constitute a rudimentary form of technical system. The raw conceptualization of such a technical system, together with the presumption of a socially useful result of its operation, constitutes, for me at least, an invention. Alternatively, an invention might be described as the conceptualization of a set of technical relations, a technical system, which when enacted will realize the social use-value of an object’s properties or qualities, as envisaged by the inventor. An invention is not necessarily a product on its own.

Consider a further example, the invention of a ceramic container for liquids. The first step is to discover that clay can be moulded, if it is wet enough. A second is that putting it into a fire changes its nature to something much harder and capable of being handled robustly without breaking. A further discovery is that the new material is now impervious to watery liquids. Simple isolated discoveries such as these are not inventions. The inventive step is to combine them to make something socially useful from which others can benefit, such as a container for liquids made from the fire hardened material.  This bringing together of discoveries into a useful ‘technical system’ is a good example of bricolage. What is bricolage? Bricolage is a process of bringing together, formerly unconnected ideas, or properties, or phenomena, and creatively, or inventively, reassembling them to construct a new and useful system. Now to innovating.


Innovating is commonly described as a process of commercialization. For me it is a process of socialization. It is the sharing of, or diffusion of, which implies a take-up of, even an acceptance of, an invention. During the process of innovating, the raw invention may be modified and adapted, made to fit the context or situation in which its value is realized. It is also through this process that a simple object can become a more complex social object like the prehistoric jadeite hand axe featured on the main page.

The piece about mud drilling in the wikipedia link above, also provides a good example of innovating. Adding a clay-water slurry as a drill lubricant would have been an invention. These days, materials have been added to improve drill rig system performance, and other synthetic materials are used as substitutes for the simple clay-water mix. This process of incremental system modification toward improvement, I would describe as innovating. That is, adapting the raw invention to specific application contexts.

Now, I want to return to the invention of the fired clay container. During the process of innovating, the technique of making will be improved, and modifications made to the container resulting in a range of different designs for different applications, such as cooking, drinking from, slurping from, or for storing things in. For example. taking my invention of the baker’s tray/chicken wire soil riddler (on the left).

If I chose to develop the idea for use by others, it would probably end up like this. This nifty bit of stuff is an example, I think, of innovating from the original invention.


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