We all seem to want more innovation these days. But do we really know what we are searching for? Do we understand the true meaning of innovation? Or are we stuck in a paradigm that doesn’t fit the original meaning of the term? Find out more in this article by Per Frankelius, Ph.D., and Associate Professor at Örebro University.

When Johansson (2004: 13) defines innovation, he refers to ‘creative ideas’. Leading policy-makers state that: ‘Innovation is the process of transforming knowledge into new products, processes and services…’ (Western Economic Diversification Canada, 2009). Another researcher writes that: ‘Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.’ (Fagerberg, 2005: 4).Researchers and policy-makers use phrases such as ‘commercialization of innovation’ (cf Hudson, 1985; Hansen and Sebora, 2003). Obviously they think that market-intended innovations can exist without being commercialized.

In sum innovation most often is considered as ideas or ideas that are transformed into products or offerings. But is this the original meaning of the word innovation?

The core of innovation

Obviously they think that market-intended innovations can exist without being commercialized

The term innovation can be traced back to John Udall and King Edward VI and 1548. Udall referred to new kinds of words entering the language. The meaning of innovation was changes made to the nature of anything, and their introduction into society. In 1967 the respected Times Review of Industry & Technology confirmed the original meaning: ‘Nylon, for instance, was first invented in 1928, but not innovated until 1939’ (p. 86). The magazine referred to the years when du Pont began commercial production and sale of the new material.

In a forthcoming publication I deepen the etymological analysis of the word innovation, which has its roots in Greek in around 400BC. My conclusion so far is that innovation should be defined as something that is simultaneously:

  • new with a high level of originality,
  • in any area of society,
  • obtaining a foothold in society, often via the market,
  • and revolutionary for people.

The innovative process is not complete until customers or others that it could benefit have acknowledged and accepted the new object or concept. Therefore, to refer to the ‘commercialization of innovations’ is tautologous.

The bicycle innovation was realized more than 100 years after its principal technical concept was invented. Obtaining a foothold would seem to be a more important and more difficult aspect of innovation than concept development. This conclusion stands in contrast to the current mainstream understanding of innovation and has important implications for practice and policy.

The impact of the (wrong) paradigm on policy and practice

To refer to the ‘commercialization of innovations’ is tautologous.

Most innovation investment during the last 50 years has been directed towards technology or product development. The technology assumption is so widespread, that most researchers seem to take it for granted. The ‘R’ in ‘R&D’ is almost always technological (e.g. including medical and pharmaceutical research). ‘R’ seldom refers, for example, to market research on customer’s needs. But is this paradigm consistent with the real innovation world?

Learning from a case: Impact Coatings

The Swedish company Impact Coatings in Linköping developed and patented a coating for sensitive electrical surfaces that is said to be better than gold. The technology is brilliant. But what is the really big challenge for this innovative company? In a speech at Small Company Days in Örebro, CEO Henrik Ljungcrantz underlined that the company needed high-level knowledge on commercialization aspects, and appealed for university cooperation in that field.

Both my research into the roots of the word innovation, and extensive case-studies over 20 years, including Impact Coatings, bring me to the same – painful – conclusion: Many policy-makers as well as company managers choose the wrong cards in the struggle for more innovation.

No doubt, technical knowledge is very important in many cases. But it is  never enough for innovation. Knowledge related to valorization processes should be given as much recognition as technological knowledge – and also in high-technology contexts. Moreover, innovation may occur in many non-technical contexts such as opera or social care services. I explore this aspect more deeply elsewhere (Frankelius, forthcoming). The discussion on innovation so far is summarized in fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Innovation model including valorization, selection and in-breaking (or ‘obtaining a foothold).

Models of knowledge production

In addition to the question of what kind of knowledge is important to fulfil the dream of innovation, it is also important to know how and where this knowledge is created. Since Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning (1606) many theories have been proposed on research processes and knowledge production.

Michael Gibbons and colleagues (1994) proposed the view that a shift in the character of high-level knowledge production, including research, is under way. In the traditional view of learning (Mode 1), scientific discovery occurs inside universities, and is made by academics free from any external interference. This model is beingsuperseded by a new model, Mode 2.

Mode 2 knowledge, Gibbons et al. suggest, is created in networks with nodes in many disciplines and also outside the university world. Research is evaluated by academics and universities, but also by companies and a variety of public sector bodies. The dissemination of research takes place not only in academic journals, but also in the specialist press and books (‘grey literature’). The most important means of dissemination, however, is personal involvement and interactions.

The dissemination of research takes place not only in academic journals, but also in the specialist press and books (‘grey literature’).

High-level knowledge can be developed at many sites in society. I call universities Site A, companies Site B, and non academic organizations that are not companies Site C. Of course, there can be combinations of these knowledge production sites. For example, the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 was awarded to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith from the company Bell Laboratories and Charles K. Kao from Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in the UK and the Chinese University of Hong Kong: an illustration of a mix of Sites A and B.

An example of Site C is one of the winners of the Nobel Price for Chemistry also in 2009: Ada E. Yonath from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. This organization is neither a company nor a university – it is a research institute: Site C.

The point here is that the flow of knowledge goes both ways, and everything is about interaction and exchange.

For universities, the new logic of high-level knowledge production could constitute both a threat and an opportunity depending on their response to the trend. Co-production with actors outside formal academia might not generate only flows of money; it might not mean only knowledge transfer from university to society. In fact these interactions could stimulate the very core of the academic research process because of valuable inflows of ideas and knowledge. Not least is that true if the goal is original and relevant new knowledge. The point here is that the flow of knowledge goes both ways, and everything is about interaction and exchange. Universities such as Warwick in the UK and its partners such as Toyota realized this many years ago.

For a more extended discussion on the theme in this article, see Frankelius (2009).

By Per Frankelius, Ph.D., and Associate Professor at Örebro University.


Fagerberg, J. (2005). ‘Innovation. A guide to the literature’. In J. Fagerberg , D. C. Mowery & R.R. Nelson (Eds.). (2004). The Oxford Handbook of Innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 1-26.
Frankelius, P. (2009) Questioning two myths in innovation literature. The Journal of High Technology Management Research, 20 (1), pp. 40–51.
Frankelius, P. (forthcoming) ‘Innovative processes: experience drawn from the creation of Dalhalla’. In I. Zander and M. Scherdin (Eds.), Art Entrepreneurship, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Hansen, J. & Sebora, T. C. (2003) ‘Applying Principles of Corporate Entrepreneurship to Achieve National Economic Growth’. In G. D. Libecap (Ed.): Issues in Entrepreneurship. Contracts, corporate characteristics and country differences. Oxford: Elsevier, p. 69-90.
Hudson, William E. (1985) ‘The Feasibility of a Comprehensive U.S. Industrial Policy. Political Science Quarterly‘, 100, (3), pp. 461-478.
Ljungcrantz, H. (2008) Speech at Småföretagsdagarna, Örebro, Sweden, 23-24 January.
Times Review of Industry & Technology (1967) Innovations, Times Review of Industry & Technology, 5 (10), October, 86.
Western Economic Diversification Canada (2009) Innovation: Building a 21st Century Economy Canada (, December 7, 2009)

About the author

Per Frankelius, PhD, is Associate Professor at Örebro University. He is on the board of the Swedish Entrepreneurship Forum, a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a member of the Royal Economic Society.

His doctoral research was on the development of the first project to use DNA-technology to develop a pharmaceutical (growth hormone). His current research focuses on innovation in the arts (e.g. opera) as well as public sector innovation.

Frankelius was Secretary-General in the government inquiry (SOU) Innovative Processes 2002–03, and leader of the project (2003–05), which led to the creation of the Swedish Business School. In 2006 he was elected to membership of the Swedish Broadcasting Commission. He has been involved with several regional strategies, and is at present employed part time by Örebro Regional Council.

His research on innovation has been presented at conferences in many countries including the USA, Russia, Hungary, Finland, and the UK. As the author of some 350 publications Frankelius has been active and vocal in the national and international scientific community and society in general.