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What Do You Mean, “Innovation”?

BY KIM BELLARD

One of my favorite movies is The Princess Bride. Among the many great quotes is one from Inigo Montoya, who becomes frustrated when the evil Vizzini keeps using “inconceivable” to describe events that were clearly actually taking place. “You keep using that word,” Inigo finally says. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So it is for most of us with the word “innovation” – especially in healthcare.

What started thinking me about this is an opinion piece by Alex Amouyel: Innovation Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does.  Ms. Amouyel is the Executive Director of Solve, an MIT initiative whose mission is “to drive innovation to solve world challenges.” It sees itself as “a marketplace for social impact innovation.”    

In her article, Ms. Amouyel notes that traditional definitions of innovation focus on the use of novelty to create wealth. She doesn’t dispute that view, as long as “wealth” includes the less traditional “community wealth,” which includes “broadly shared economic prosperity, racial equity, and ecological sustainability.” I suspect that innovators like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk don’t ascribe to that view of innovation.

Ms. Amouyel’s view is: “For me, innovation is about solving problems. And if innovation is about solving problems, what problems you are solving and who is setting about solving them is key.” She notes the multiplicity and difficulty of both global and community-level problems that we face, and urges: “Most urgently, we should zero in on problems that affect the most underserved among us.”

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