Innovation: It’s not just for geniuses anymore

“Innovation is the key.” We hear these words of wisdom all the time, don’t we?

And we nod our heads in agreement, remembering our pocket computers and the communication devices that we still call phones. Or how the 3-D technology and programs of the North Carolina-based Geomagic make it possible to manufacture one-of-a kind products on demand.

But does the word have meaning to ordinary humans who aren’t geniuses like Apple's Steve Jobs or Geomagic's Ping Fu?

During a discussion of innovation at last month’s AdvantageWest Economic Summit in Asheville, I asked the panelists to explain what innovation means and illustrate with an example.

Their varied answers helped me understand that there’s a place for innovation in almost every workplace.

Mike Adams, president of Moog Music, noted the innovations in rapid, long-distance communication that have swept by in his lifetime: Telephones and telegraphs replaced mail, only to be replaced by telex, which was replaced by fax, which is being replaced by emails which, in turn, are being supplanted by various other innovations. "I try to think like a 12-year-old,” said Adams. “They’re thinking, ‘What’s next?’”

For Anita Brown-Graham, director of North Carolina's Institute for Emerging Issues in Raleigh, an innovation is not just a good idea but one that can help address an unmet need.

She described a teacher in Chapel Hill who found it hard to get her students' attention after lunch. But if she let them go to the playground first, they came back refreshed and alert. The teacher wanted to give her students stimulating exercise; she also wanted to preserve serious class time. By innovating, she accomplished both. She recorded her lectures for the after-lunch class, gave each kid a listening device, and took them for a 35-minute walk while they heard her recording. Her innovation met her need, and it’s also meeting other teachers’ needs through the The Walking Classroom, a program that produces and distributes WalkKit listening devices pre-loaded with a year's worth of grade-appropriate content.

Brown-Graham is optimistic about the potential of the generation just entering college now. Programmed to be innovators, they are risk-takers, but they lack the support networks, small-business experience and financing to make their innovations successful.

Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, agreed, emphasizing the need for funding sources to exploit innovations commercially.

Gerlach described an unusual innovation in Western North Carolina: a wave-making machine built and sited in Swain County’s Nantahala River. That innovative idea drew thousands of people to the region for this year's Freestyle Kayaking World Cup.

Charlotte's Mark Erwin, the former U.S. ambassador to Mauritius, used that country as an example of innovation. When the island off the coast of Africa gained its independence in 1968, it was one of the world’s poorest countries, almost totally dependent on a sugar-plantation economy. An economic inventory found little more than 1.3 million mostly uneducated people. But since they were the country's only resource, the government decreed that education would be free for everyone.

"That was innovation," Erwin declared. "Today it’s the most prosperous country in Africa, with the highest literacy rate, a huge information-technology center, much tourism and a thriving textile industry."

These varied examples suggest that, since there are an untold number of unmet needs, there are an equal number of opportunities for innovation — just waiting for someone to exploit them.

— D.G. Martin hosts "North Carolina Bookwatch" on UNC-TV.

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