The title still-frame from the documentary “Chautauqua: An American Narrative” shows people gathered along the Clark Brick Walk, on the edge of the Hall of Philosophy, in full-color summer — a sight familiar to Chautauquans and one that embodies the Institution’s history from the first Assembly.
Here’s a quick question that seems simple but that I think is a lot harder than it looks: What does the word “innovation” mean? Is it the same as invention? Or is it more similar to discovery? We probably know that innovation has something to do with human creativity and usually with new technology. But can innovation just be explained as any kind of creative new thing or idea? Or is it something altogether different?
These days, on the television news or in the business press, we can’t go long before hearing about new, innovative companies. In fact, it’s become a steady drumbeat. We hear about innovative products and innovative “apps” for our smartphones. Or we hear about fantastically innovative people, like the late Steve Jobs, who have earned themselves the honorific of being called innovators. But it can sometimes be difficult to separate truth from hype. What’s more is there seems little doubt that the term innovation now seems to function much like a buzzword: We hear it so often, and apply it so indiscriminately, that we may have only the haziest sense of its definitions. Meanwhile, as the deeper meanings of innovation have become obscured, I’ve often wondered: Does that mean we have lost a sense of what innovation requires, or why it’s so difficult, or why — when it succeeds — it can be so central to our culture and economy?