Innovation is definitely everywhere and it is becoming increasingly central in our society (Mota 2009, 2011; Mota and Scott 2014). There is a long way from its initial concept in the Middle Ages meaning novelty, arising from human creativity, until today where it becomes a sort of emblem of modern society and directly associated to the possibility of sustainable economic and social development.
The concept of innovation is much broader than simply technological innovation, although the strong influence of the last one, especially along the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Godin (2008) prefers to understand innovation as a category, which reflects a sort of dialectics between reality and language, in such a way that changes and events gave rise to new categories and these brought to light changes in the world, which contribute to a better clarification of the meaning of innovation.
The artisans during the Renaissance understood imitation as a good practice, closely associated with novelty-innovation, most of the times also considered as being invention itself. As pointed out by Newman (1989), by doing that it was an art learned by imitating nature, as claimed by the alchemists. Imitation was considered at that time as requiring work, experimentation, judgment and imagination.
It is interesting to observe that at the beginning of the industrial revolution in Britain, imitation was associated with invention because it could result in new commodities, introducing not only the real possibility to attend demands by diffusion and scale, but, by doing so, improving quality and design. Then, innovation by imitation, although not primary innovation, can be considered derivative or incremental innovation, which is different from copying.
The concept of innovation was always involved with the discussion about differences between discovery and invention. Discovery usually refers to finding facts or things that already exist, whilst invention is more associated to combining or making new things like objects, processes or new theories about something.
Invention, initially associated with science and also with imagination in literature and visual arts, over the last centuries become progressively identified with mechanical or technological invention (Engell 1981). Finally, during the twentieth century, because of the culture of things and utilitarian value, technological innovation became synonymous of invention and also very often of innovation.
The term innovation, although old (for instance, it is cited by Machiavelli in The Prince, 1513 and by F. Bacon in Of Innovations, 1625), was used only rarely before the twentieth century. In contrast, in the last century there was a series of debates about innovation. J.A. Schumpeter (1939, 1947, 1961) wrote extensively about it. He argued that capitalism is a permanent creative destruction system and innovation is the cause of this phenomenon) (Mota and Scott2013).
Schumpeter (1961) identified five types of innovation: 1) introduction of a new good; 2) introduction of a new method of production; 3) opening of a new market; 4) conquest of a new source of supply of raw materials; and 5) implementation of a new form of organization. Also, Schumpeter (1939) distinguished innovation from invention by saying that “innovation is possible without invention and invention does not necessarily induce innovation”, only when commercialized.
During the second half of last century a number of authors (Deutsch et al. 1986; Mulgan et al. 2007) introduced a broader understanding of innovation including also “social innovation” meaning either major advances in the social sciences, policy reforms for the betterment of society or solutions to social needs, coming from community sectors among others.
More recently, a new wave of approaches for innovation includes original concepts like “open innovation”, “democratizing innovation”, “creative economies” and also areas not usually contained before like organizational and marketing innovation. All these elements are associated with a new characteristic that innovation comes also from many sources, not only the traditional research laboratories and include sometimes the users themselves.
In the twentieth century, the general idea of a kind of “linear model” was consolidated, suggesting that innovation starts with basic research, then goes through applied research, then development, and finally production and diffusion. The last two steps have been assumed as more associated with innovation.
What can be observe today is that innovation is not anymore a possible distant consequence of the basic research or the end of the line. Innovation has become itself many times the origin of the research programmes, modulating and stimulating science to be produced as a consequence of the innovation word. At the same time, the traditional assumption that innovation results from meeting demands, nowadays is replaced by the idea that sometimes innovation generates demands never imagined before.
The following simplified knowledge management scheme can be proposed:
Regarding science, traditionally, the following straight line used to be assumed as the usual:
Nowadays, a different way is more convenient:
Innovation is becoming more central, broader in concept, and it shares the role to be simultaneously the end and also the beginning of the process associated with knowledge or value creation.
Suh (2010) presented an interesting theory associating three laws as the necessary conditions for the occurrence of innovation. The first of them demands that all steps or elements of an innovation continuum must be present. The second law states that an innovation hub can be nucleated if the initial size of the nucleate is larger than a critical size and if the activation energy barrier for nucleation can be overcome. Finally, the last one requires that the nucleation rate must be faster than the rate at which innovative talents and ideas can diffuse away from the region.
The 2012 annual World Competitiveness Yearbook (WCY)a, which was recently announced, reflects how countries manage their economic and human resources to increase their prosperity. In accordance with them, the most competitive of the 59 ranked economies in 2012 are Hong Kong, the US and Switzerland. The results also permitted to conclude that emerging economies, like Brazil (ranked 48th), China (23rd), India (35th) and Russia (46th) are not yet immune to the recent international turmoil.
In this new scenario, the educational institutions have increasingly assumed and expanded a central role in science, technology and innovation-based economic development and the roles of universities and research centres have evolved from performing conventional research and educational functions to serving also as an innovation-promoting knowledge hub.
The traditional university, in general, looks backwards and assumes itself as a storehouse or accumulator of old knowledge. On the other hand, the modern university sees itself as a generator of new forms engaged with the advance of technological innovation and economic development in its region (Youtiea and Shapira 2008). In the context of innovation as a central issue, universities are simultaneously central generators, especially motivated by the external demands, and repositories of knowledge in our society. The way that knowledge is developed, disseminated and applied affects not only the cultural richness of the society, but also the global competitiveness.
The quest for a sustainable social and economical development and the challenges associated with competitiveness and the necessary closer understanding and joint work between the universities and the productive sector will demand new strategies for education in general and a deep discussion about the methodologies compatible with the formation of professionals in a scenario where innovation and sustainability are central.