Imaginative, sure. Creative, possible. But is it an innovation to create a candy cane that tastes like pho? Even if it sells well? In some instances, I’ve taken quite a hardliner stance on this, and called out the notion of calling anything that has the tiniest novelty an ‘innovation’. In fact, I wrote a whole book
That said, we need to remember that innovation’s relationship with frivolity is far more complex than people sometimes make it out to be. A lot of innovations are frivolities when first introduced. The first car, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s steamdriven monstrosity, weighed 2500 kg, was seriously wobbly, needed to be restarted every 15 minutes, and had a maximum speed of 3,6km/h (an average trotting speed for a horse is around 13km/h). Cugnot is also on record for having caused the first car accident. Regardless, it would be rather silly to claim that the car wasn’t an innovation, or to deny Cugnot his place in its history.
The tricky thing, then, is how do we tell apart the silly frivolities – like a candy that tastes of ginger-glazed carrots – from the ones that only seem silly at the time? The problematic thing is that we can’t, at least not entirely. What we can do, however, is to think about trajectories and lines of flight
In order to do so, let us consider two completely different kinds of novelties. One is a candy cane that tastes of mushrooms. The other, an entirely new kind of payment protocol, that seems to accept smiles as micro-payments. Superficially speaking, both seem quite silly, more like PR-stunts or the product of an overly excited student mind. The difference is their potentialities. Unless something truly different happened in the manner in which the candy cane was infused with mushroom flavor, there is little truly new here. Candy canes are well-known. Flavoring is well-known. Mushroom is a well-known flavor (that I happen to hate, but that’s neither here nor there). Sure, this kind of Frankenflavor might be developed forward a little, but it is unlikely to open up a whole new strand of innovation.
A payment system of smiles, on the other hand, may contain multitudes. How does it work? Is it sensing muscular movement? How does it tell fake smiles from real ones? Can it also be developed to make frowns a way of taking payments back? Assuming for a moment that the creators of this system actually have something that works, if ever so clumsily, there are clearly many paths this technology could take. It might spur applications that go far beyond the original idea, or create novel technologies and behaviors as people engage with this new mode of payment.
We might, in a very clumsy way, say that the former “innovation” has a closed innovation trajectory, whereas the latter has an open one. This is of course a simplification, but it might serve as a tool for thinking about how we should understand new, frivolous-seeming innovations. If they seem like they have no-where to go except sideways, like in the case below, we might say that this is a case where true innovation is quite unlikely, even though it would be possible to follow this trajectory and generate additional products.