IED Network

September 17, 2019

The evolution of the concept of innovation and its role in supporting positive change

The evolution of the concept of innovation and its role in supporting positive change Innovation has become such a popular concept in recent decades that it is perhaps now overused. The term innovation has become synonymous with modernity, novelty and success; a vademecum against stagnation, which is championed in areas such as politics, companies, non-profit organizations, advertising and consultancy. Furthermore, from the invention of the wheel, to the steam engine, to spaceships, innovations have led to social and political changes, transforming people’s lives with lasting effects on the well-being of individuals, nations and civilizations.

The concept of innovation has evolved over time and has different meanings for different people. Innovation derives from the Latin innovatio, which means “change” or “revolution”. A contemporary definition of the verb innovate given by the Oxford Dictionaries is “to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”1; a definition inspired by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1934 writings, which made a distinction between invention and innovation. According to Schumpeter, invention is the development of something new (for example an idea), whereas innovation is its successful implementation and longterm acceptance in a system (for example on the sales market, companies, organizations, the environment or society).

An innovation is thus “bound to the system that produces it and at the same time changes it [..]”2 Spheres of innovation range from product innovation to process innovation, social innovation, sustainable innovation, and organizational innovation. Each of these spheres comes with different strategies and innovation processes and implies “exploring and analysing a problem, searching and evaluating ideas, research, design and development, production and sales preparation to market launch, which can therefore take place in several phases within and outside the organization.”3 In a world in transition, there is a growing awareness that innovation, in all its aspects and forms, is the driving force behind sustainable social and environmental change.
The “call to action” of the Sustainable Development Goals from the UN 2030 Agenda, with closely interlinked goals (17), targets (169) and indicators (230) represents an impressive global challenge. The complexity of the SDGs requires a systemic & holistic approach not only at a global but also on a national and local scale, in order to address the unique conditions of each specific country and regions worldwide, adopted in regional innovation ecosystems and innovation clusters.
These different innovative ecosystems can strengthen or weaken each other. Over time, their intensification could lead to a significant transformation in mainstreaming systems and have an impact at a global level.
In the multi-layered structures of innovative ecosystems, the worldwide actions of the Global Goals Jams are to be seen as an international network of “innovative ecosystem pop-ups”. In a timeframe of two- or four-days Jammers are setting out, understanding and tackling local challenges linked to the global goals and, from a more general point of view, acquiring skills to master the complexities, thus enabling them to come up with positive changes aimed at diversifying future opportunities.


Gabriel Weirich

Innovation Manager
Lecturer and coach at IED Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan
Coach #Global Goals Jam 2019 Milan

This article is part of a series of perspectives on design and sustainable development connected to the Global Goals Jam 2019 (September 19-22) – an international event where change-makers create innovative solutions to achieve the Global Goals. Creative professionals Marika Aakesson, Simona Maccagnani, Giovanni Ottonello and Gabriel Weirich share viewpoints to debate with, provoke and inspire new generations of learners.


1 Oxford Dictionaries –
2 Jens Lanfer Innovations in politics and society (Innovationen in Politik und Gesellschaft) 2017: 166
3 Specht in wirtschaftslexikon