Continuous invention and innovation


Continuous invention and innovation involve coming up with streams of new discoveries over a limited period of time.  Turning out those new discoveries has to occur in a fairly continuous or systematic way, to meet the many challenges faced by an organization.  Successive experimentation is therefore at the core of continuous invention.  For the kinds of organizations that are typical of technocapitalism---the experimentalist organizations---continuous invention and innovation are vital necessities.


Why are continuous invention and innovation important?


Continuous invention and innovation help reduce the risk and uncertainty surrounding new products.  Invention is possibly the riskiest of all economic activities.  Coming up with a new discovery often involves much trial and error, with no certainty over outcomes.  It is typically impossible to anticipate whether any new discovery will be successful as a product.  Many new products never recover the cost of their research, even when their technological qualities or advancement are substantial.        


The reduction of risk and uncertainty is particularly important for organizations facing regulatory hurdles.  In many biotechnology firms, for example, the rate of approval can be as low as one out of ten thousand new compounds.  Such low odds of success can only be offset by speeding up and turning out a continuous stream of new discoveries.  As a result, continuous invention and innovation have become an integral part of corporate strategy.


Adding to the risk and uncertainty of invention is the fact that lead times between the introduction of a new product and the appearance of its closest competitor have substantially declined during the past two decades.  Therefore, even products that can be marketed with some success face the added challenge of one or more competitors within a very short period after their introduction.  This situation can cut the potential revenues of a new product substantially, forestalling the recovery of its research costs and its long-term profitability. 


Continuous invention and innovation can help remedy this situation by making it possible to come up with new discoveries and introduce new products more frequently.  A possible result is a higher chance of more products finding no competitors in their market niches, even if for limited periods of time.  Thus, the main strengths provided by continuous invention and innovation lie in speed and numbers.  The larger the number of new discoveries being fielded in the market, and the faster it happens, the more likely it is that some of them will find no serious competitors over the short term. 


Continuous invention and innovation is also necessary because of the increasing cost of research.  In many activities, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, bioinformatics or advanced microelectronics, laboratory equipment, facilities and other hardware costs are substantial and can only be recovered by speeding up the pace of invention and innovation, to turn out as many new products as possible.  Similarly, costs for research personnel can be substantial, given the high level of skills required.  For many firms, it is impossible to ignore the need to pursue continuous invention and innovation, and those that do so usually do not stay long in business.   


Continuous invention and innovation in practice


Continuous invention and innovation have found widespread adoption in many research-intensive organizations, but they are most obvious in the kinds of firms that are representative of technocapitalism.  Gene-decoding firms, for example, sustain processes of continuous invention, discovering new genetic data with the help of supercomputers and bioinformatics.  The large amounts of new genetic data they discover are then patented.  Later, the patented data are licensed to other organizations, such as pharmaceutical firms, research laboratories and medical technology companies.  Some gene-decoding companies have therefore become, through continuous invention, both owners and clearing-houses of discoveries that can be licensed to other research organizations.                 


The need to sustain continuous invention and innovation has led some firms to adopt a system of parallel experimentation in research.  Parallelism involves undertaking non-sequential experimental tasks simultaneously, to speed up the process of discovery.  Parallel experimentation can be carried out at various locations scattered throughout the world, connected by telecommunications or the Internet, or it can be performed at a single facility.  It can save a substantial amount of time for organizations in activities such as biotechnology, where research and regulatory testing require a multitude of procedures that are complex and time-consuming. 


Parallelism has also been adopted for research involving experimental designs.  In software design, for example, code for various components of new software can be written simultaneously, tested and then assembled.  The time savings involved can be substantial.  Such savings, in turn, allow greater productivity in the design of new code and, eventually, the marketing of a larger number of new products.  Even some of the old sectors typical of industrial capitalism have been adopting parallelism in their research activities.  In automotive design, for example, the design and engineering of new models is now undertaken simultaneously, cutting the time required to produce a prototype by as much as 80 percent, compared to the previous sequential approach.


The need to sustain continuous invention and innovation has also been partly responsible for the adoption of modularity in research.  The modular approach is most relevant for the invention and innovation of complex systems.  It divides research departments into units (or modules) to undertake projects that will become part of a larger system.  Basic rules are set, that will allow each of the projects to be linked later on as they reach completion.  Invention and innovation can thereby occur simultaneously, by compartmentalizing projects into the units.  Modularity can be found in research related to complex systems, such as the design and engineering of supercomputers, aerospace and telecommunications equipment.


The adoption of continuous invention has also made it possible to increase the carrying capacity of many products, such as microchips and computer memory disks, over short periods of time.  In microchips, for example, the exponential increases in capacity that have occurred with regularity during the past two decades (known as Moore’s Law), are largely a product of this phenomenon.  Those exponential increases have, in turn, created a technological race from which companies involved in advanced microchip research cannot escape, except at the cost of failure.         


In many companies, the pressures to speed up invention and innovation have led to dualism in the organization of research.  As a result, some firms undertake invention in what may be called a first-mover research unit or group, where intensive experimentation occurs.  Such units are usually charged with finding discoveries that can be patented.  Much uncertainty and risk is involved in their operations, since it is difficult to anticipate outcomes.  Moreover, those outcomes, even when they can be patented, may not become successful products.  Those units’ operations can therefore be costly and very risky, but are vital if a company is to have any chance of coming up with its own new discoveries.      


A second kind of research operation, the second-mover group or unit, then becomes involved with innovation.  Its activities may, for example, involve tweaking existing products to improve their performance to the level of competitors.  In other cases, the controversial practice of reverse engineering competitors’ products may also be part of its scope, looking for opportunities to imitate successful new products.  Despite the potential ethical and legal pitfalls involved, the financial rewards of second-mover innovation have often been substantial.  It has, for example, helped some companies avoid the long, costly and uncertain process of coming up with entirely new products of their own, by unfairly profiting from others’ work.  In other cases, second-mover innovation has helped a company’s own existing products become more competitive by improving their performance.   


These are but a few examples of how continuous invention and innovation are being introduced in various activities of our time.  From the platform of experience this phenomenon is building up, new strategies aimed at supporting technocapitalism are likely to emerge.  A major problem is the question of how much these features of technocapitalism---along with the new technologies and sectors that emerge---will be taken over by oligopolistic corporations.  Oligopolies may reorient these aspects of continuous invention and innovation to preserve and protect their market power, rather than to generate the new technologies and activities that will most benefit humankind.        




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Copyright © Luis Suarez-Villa