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The Innovation Imperative

Innovation is more than synonymous with creative technologies and artistic imagination; it is also a national necessity

by Matthew Wisnioski

“INNOVATION IS A BUZZWORD TODAY. In both the popular and technical press … we are told whether, when, where, and how to innovate, but little attention seems to have been paid to what to innovate. This important and intensely practical question is probably the most difficult of all to answer.”

These words, decrying the cliché of innovation while also embracing its promise, may not be surprising. Less expected is the year they were written: 1970. George Dacey, a pioneer of the telecommunications industry, penned them to explain the manager’s challenge of choosing where to invest limited resources amid many possible paths.

Nearly 50 years later, innovation—and its promise of cutting-edge technology and economic prosperity—is more than a buzzword. It has become the global economy’s imperative, as universities, corporations, and even local school boards seek to cultivate new generations of innovators.

The meaning of the word innovation has evolved over time. For many centuries, innovators were religious heretics. In the 1950s, though, innovation became a positive signifier of progress. Today, innovation typically suggests the commercialization of a new technology in a way that creates social and economic value. Yet innovation is also synonymous with creativity, design, artistic imagination, and cultural change.

Since the word’s rehabilitation, there have been countless efforts to make innovators at different career stages. The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program, for example, may teach a mid-career systems biologist to translate scientific discoveries into marketable products. In magazines and books, business gurus offer new entrepreneurs recipes for developing the techniques and personal habits they need to innovate. An afterschool clubhouse in Detroit teaches an eight-year-old girl to make a virtual fox dance using a programming language designed to foster lifelong creativity.

Architects of these programs share the belief that everyone, regardless of vocation, should innovate. They encourage Americans to tap the country’s legacy of invention to keep pace with rapid technological advances in the face of increasingly complex problems. By unlocking our creative confidence, they suggest, we can all learn to thrive in a knowledge economy that rewards entrepreneurship and ingenuity.


From Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, those in the business of innovation have always pondered the essence of innovators. Stories abound of technological wizards whose very force of personality drives breakthroughs. Profiles of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs echo qualities once attributed to Edison and Nikola Tesla.

These young, gritty, and creative men—and in such tales they are almost always men—overcome failure and naysayers to create products that remake the world. With varying shades of plausibility, their biographical accounts offer the prospect that you, too, can follow in their footsteps to become the next great innovator. But what characterizes an innovator?

The first systematic attempt to understand the characteristics of innovators emerged in the 1950s, when Everett Rogers, a graduate student in sociology, showed that innovators followed a similar pattern across communities as diverse as elementary schools and Native American tribes. He later described innovators as having a “propensity for venturesomeness,” for the “hazardous, the rash, the avant-garde, and the risky.”

These “agents that promote change,” according to Rogers, have six qualities in common. They are young, high in social status, drawn to “impersonal” information, cosmopolitan, thought leaders, and frequently viewed as “deviant.” His conclusion: innovators are curious and intelligent mavericks who can be found anywhere.

Programs designed to cultivate innovators emerged and grew in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by technology managers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. The chief drivers of those programs, though, were federal agencies.

The Department of Commerce and the National Science Foundation created public-private incubators aimed at transferring the fruits of basic research and weapons development into the domestic economy. To remake scientists and engineers as innovators, these agencies also funded university entrepreneurship programs that combined science, technology, and business development.

Today’s efforts to make innovators build on this legacy. The rise of personal computing and the internet spawned visions of college dropouts becoming instant billionaires. Programs once targeted to technology executives now shape our approach to elementary education. Feminism and equal-opportunity legislation have helped generate alternatives to the stereotype of the brash young man. And global competitiveness has raised questions about where innovation happens and what role immigrants should play in the country’s innovation policy.

Programs focused on the skills, mindsets, and tools of innovation range widely. Yet their advocates share a core belief: Innovators are made, not born, and we are not doing enough to cultivate this national resource.


Much of the rhetoric about innovation has viewed it as a natural and unquestioned engine of economic and social progress, a universal good that overshadows power imbalances. Yet critics have begun to question the goals, blindspots, and shortcomings of initiatives aimed at fostering innovation. For every program intent on making innovators, more and more critics are asking: to what end?

Much of the criticism has focused on the persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities in scientific and technical fields. A 2016 study, The Demographics of Innovation in the United States, found that decades of efforts to expand opportunities for women and minorities have had little impact on increasing their representation in those fields. The study suggests that the median innovator in the United States is a white man in his late forties with an advanced degree; women represent only 12 percent of innovators, and minorities born in the United States make up only 8 percent, with African Americans less than 0.5 percent.

Some critics further question the values of innovation, with the realization that technology alone cannot solve most problems. Some detractors point out the shallowness of gadget-centric “solutionism,” the unequal distribution of innovation’s burdens and rewards, and the fetishism of novelty. At the core of their analysis is a challenge to the definition of innovation, a concept so increasingly expansive that it risks losing all meaning.

Recently, these critiques have begun to coalesce into a new understanding of innovation. Many leading thinkers in this area are reformers within the scientific and technological community who want to expand access to innovation and redefine the behaviors—such as extreme competitiveness—with which it is stereotypically associated. Reformers also promote new ideals of collaborative creativity and the cultivation of patterns of discovery made through play and “making,” detached from commercial interests. Others champion alternative values, such as maintenance and caregiving, that have been overshadowed by the focus on making innovators.


U.S. universities are increasingly developing educational programs in innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity. For such programs to have broad and equitable impact, participation needs to extend beyond science and technology to encompass the humanities and social sciences, which can question assumptions, provide fresh insights, and reframe solutions.

The pressure to train and equip new innovators is unlikely to subside anytime soon, so it is incumbent on critics of innovation to understand—and help shape—how innovators are made. Scholars in the science-and-technology-studies discipline call this approach critical participation. It encourages anthropologists, historians, philosophers, and sociologists to explore the values and consequences of innovation alongside the practitioners they study.

Partnerships among practitioners and scholars can also enhance the curricula of both the technical fields in which innovators tend to reside and the critical fields that study them. As humanists, ethnographers, and other scholars increasingly work with practitioners from science and engineering, together they have an opportunity to develop more collaborative, diverse, contextual, and ethically informed approaches to complex societal challenges.

That innovation has remained a buzzword for over half a century speaks to its enduring capacity to inspire both aspirations and anxiety about working to forge the future. It also suggests important and intensely practical questions: Innovation for what? And by whom?

Matthew Wisnioski is an associate professor of science and technology in society at Virginia Tech. He is developing his insights into critical participation in innovation in Can Innovators Be Made?, a book project by innovation experts and critical scholars, edited in collaboration with Eric Hintz of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and Marie Stettler Kleine, a doctoral student in Virginia Tech’s Department of Science and Technology in Society. (Matt Wisnioski's research is supported in part by the National Science Foundation under grant 1354121. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author.)