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What is technological innovation? How do you achieve it?

The most effective innovations come from networking and are currently the result of hybrid research.
illustration of networks
Do you have an unconventional idea? Maybe you’re looking at an innovation. (Photo: iStock)

The concept of innovation was first introduced in 1934 to talk about new ideas that are successfully applied. It has undergone many transformations over time. We explain what is technological innovation.

What is technological innovation?

They’re the new creations that occurred in the industrial field in the eighties and nineties. These marked a milestone in history, reminding us that science transforms societies.

Today, technological innovation triggers decisive changes to traditional ways of doing or producing “something” (such as technological changes). However, few projects reach this level of disruption.

“Companies innovate a lot. The issue is that their innovations aren’t so novel to become incorporated internationally. There isn’t much innovation based on research and development, particularly when it comes to introducing something new internationally,” says Gabriela Dutrénit Bielous, an expert in innovation.

In Mexico, there are three regions that are leading the way for technological innovation in three main fields: medical devices, aerospace technology, and the automotive industry.

Nuevo León ranks first, with 10 research and development centers focused on very different areas, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, mechatronics, advanced manufacturing, information technologies, sustainable housing, health, clean energy, and advanced materials.

In second place is Querétaro, where there’s an ecosystem focused on the development of aerospace and automotive technology.

This is followed by the border area of Baja California, which has established a bi-national node with San Diego for the development of medical devices.

Evolution of the concept of innovation

Innovation is defined as the introduction of a new product or process in the market and has different degrees of intensity.

Yes, initially it only referred to technological innovations in the technical area. Then organizational changes and innovations in business models were introduced, scaling up to different sectors such as services, agriculture, and even the public sector.

“It’s a concept that’s been evolving. Even today, we talk about social innovation related to the needs of the population,” says Gabriela Dutrénit Bielous, a specialist in science and technology policies.

For 20 years, new concepts of innovation have emerged as a response to social contexts and have incorporated aspects of sustainability and social inclusion, giving rise to other innovations, such as inclusive innovation, grassroots innovation, frugal innovation, and social innovation.

Why it’s important to innovate and what is needed to do so

The production, exploitation, and dissemination of knowledge are indispensable for the economic growth, development, and wellbeing of nations, according to the Oslo Manual.

According to Dutrénit Bielous, in order to innovate based on knowledge, a change in culture is needed, motivated by changes in the contexts, as well as public programs that force innovation –which should be sustained over time, because nowadays every time they change, companies have to adapt again.

At the public policy level, there’s a need for companies to have a greater participation to first define what the main problems are for innovation and entrepreneurship. They also need to assume more commitments in the sense of contributing resources to the system as a whole or to the centers that generate knowledge.

According to Dutrénit, the role of universities is to be generators of knowledge. In that role, they can generate useful knowledge for society, government, and business.

The challenge for universities

According to Alfonso Ávila Robinson, from Tec de Monterrey’s EGADE Business School, universities have at least three challenges:

  • Develop a more pluralistic and cutting-edge portfolio
  • Manage knowledge inside and outside the university
  • Have a greater social commitment

“All universities have a challenge developing pluralistic portfolios. Maybe we should start by asking ourselves where our university is and what its strengths and weaknesses are and anticipating where the innovation ecosystem is heading,” says Ávila Robinson, who holds a Ph.D in Technology and Innovation Management.

The portfolio depends on the ecosystem where it’s located because a university in Chiapas isn’t the same as one in Sonora.

Since it can’t occur in isolation, innovation today features hybrid research. This means that interdisciplinary research has become more important, as solutions can be found if several fields are looking at the problem from different angles.

To this end, business schools can play a key role in promoting the conversion of science into innovation, said Alfonso Ávila.

Within Tec de Monterrey, there’s an internal ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship, which includes at least 12 programs to accompany innovative projects in the four steps of development: discovery, launch, growth, and scaling.

So, there’s TecLean, Change Center, or Changemaker Day in the early stages. For growth and scaling of ideas, there are other programs such as MentorHub and TecFounders.

At the end of the day, the goal is to facilitate a culture of entrepreneurship through innovation at universities.

“That’s where startups are created that later become spin-offs, forge partnerships, and even begin to develop with other companies,” said the EGADE Business School academic.

How can you innovate? Five steps to get started

According to Noubar Afeyan, founder of Flagship Pioneering, a company that produces other companies:

  1. Explore new ideas and hypotheses and perform an envisioning exercise to find products or services whose feasibility, viability, and attractiveness are still unknown.
  2. Stick with the ideas that survive discussions between experts and non-experts.
  3. Imagine alternate futures and work backwards by returning to the present and mapping a path to those imagined futures.
  4. Innovation is an evolutionary process, which means it’s not an ascending line but involves cycles of variation, selection, and interaction.
  5. Don’t look for a particular product but for the creation of a platform with the potential to diversify products and services in different markets.
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