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A new word for innovation


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Friday, 16 April 2010

A new word for innovation

We hear a lot about innovation – to the point that we’re in danger of wearing out the currency.

It is only natural to capitalise on the agenda of the moment and innovation is a prominent part of it, but the danger is that purpose and meaning are eroded by repetition. If we are not careful, fake innovation, or spinovation, will eventually discredit the real thing and force us to find a new way to describe it. We will have reached crisis point when the call goes out for a new word for innovation.

True innovation is not always novel or exciting, it just produces great results. The National Innovation Centre (NIC), a body hosted by the NHS Institute for Improvement and Innovation makes a modest claim to ‘support innovators, commissioners, and clinicians to speed up the development and use of innovations that will benefit the NHS’.

The NIC is a small, lean-running organisation that punches above its weight. Its job is to find out what the NHS needs and to make sure someone is developing it. That sounds simple enough, but we don’t usually know what we need until someone puts it in front of us. As for the innovators themselves, most of them get so carried away with their ideas that they forget to ask the fundamental question: does anyone really need this?

The concept of need rather than novelty is at the heart of the NIC’s work.

Check out the Showcase section of the NIC website, which contains examples of innovations that offer potentially impressive returns however you measure them.

A convincing example is StickSafe, a simple device for preventing so-called needlestick injuries, accidental punctures of the skin by hypodermic needles during use or disposal. There are an estimated 100,000 of these incidents every year. The costs can be measured in terms of health risks, including HIV and Hepatitis B and C infection, and treatment, the cost of which is an estimated £300m a year. Widespread use of StickSafe could save roughly half that cost, or £160m, not to mention a great deal of distress.

It is a modest example, but you would only need a hundred such innovations to address the NHS funding crisis.

A skim through the pages of the NIC website is guaranteed to raise your optimism threshold, but fans of spin are warned to stay away. The NIC assesses the potential of innovations but also tracks them through the later stages of the innovation lifecycle. Most of the items in its Showcase are on trial not in widespread use.

But of course that’s the thing about genuine innovation. It’s only an innovation while its future remains uncertain. We reward adoption with indifference. Our capacity to take progress for granted and move on to the next unfulfilled need, the next new thing, is boundless.