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The Idea of Technological Innovation

A Brief Alternative History

Benoît Godin

This timely book explores technological innovation as a concept, dissecting its emergence, development and use. Beno"t Godin offers an exciting new historiography of the subject, arguing that the study of innovation originates not from scholars but from practitioners of innovation.
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Benoît Godin

Over the last few decades, technological innovation became the new religion of our society, the modern belief or faith. Innovation is a panacea for our socioeconomic problems:

Most current social, economic and environmental challenges require creative solutions based on innovation and technological advance. (OECD, 2010: 30)

Innovation is our best means of successfully tackling major societal challenges, such as climate change, energy and resources scarcity, health and ageing, which are becoming more urgent by the day. (European Commission, 2010: 2)

Such a belief has a long history. “There is little doubt”, stated the OECD in one of the first titles on technological innovation ever produced in the western world, that:

If governments succeed in helping to increase the pace of technical innovation, it will facilitate structural changes in the economy, and increase the supply of new and improved products necessary for Member Governments to achieve rapid economic growth and full employment and without inflation. (OECD, 1966: 8)

Do we need to innovate? … Yes because it is one way, perhaps one of the best ways, to react in our rapidly changing society. (OECD, 1969: 15)

One could look further back in time for similar discourses on the broader concept of innovation (rather than technological innovation) and its use from the late nineteenth century onward (Godin, 2015). Yet, innovation definitely acquired a dominant and positive value thanks to or because of technological innovation. Innovation came to be what it is to us now in the context of technological innovation.

Technological innovation is a term that emerged after the Second World War, with only a few uses before that time (See Hansen, 1932; Kuznets, 1929: 540; Schumpeter, 1939: 289; Stern, 1927, 1937; Usher, 1929: vii, 10; Veblen, 1915: 118, 128–9) (see Figure I.1). Joseph Schumpeter is often credited with introducing the concept of innovation into economics. But the concept was used regularly among statisticians, economists and economic historians to discuss technology during Schumpeter’s time.

How did technological innovation come to be an object of imagination and imaginaries? The answer lies deep in the 1950s. On one side, people started producing thoughts on what innovation is, how it happens, and with what effects. Economic growth – “growthmanship” as some called it – supported by public policy, gave the concept of technological innovation a social existence. On the other side, policymakers started inventing policies and strategies to support innovation, thus legitimizing the emerging discourse.

The historiography of technological innovation as a term or concept and as a discourse is generally told from a theoretical point of view. The story goes like this: economist Joseph Schumpeter was the precursor of the concept in the 1930s–40s. The literature exploded in the 1960s–70s, a time at which the British Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) played a key role. In between, some researchers made theoretical contributions (for example, Robert Solow), particularly to the argument for public support of scientific research (for example, Kenneth Arrow).

To some extent, such a story has germs of truth. These dates are moments in the development of the discourse on technological innovation. But this is far from the whole story.1 As mentioned above, Schumpeter was just one among several authors who wrote on innovation at the time. Moreover, Schumpeter’s influence occurred much later – although he was influential on the literature on “technological change” early on (Godin, 2019).

The above illuminates how academics construct their own history. This book develops an alternative historiography and, following historian Ann Johnson on applied research, I ask: what if we wrote the history of the technological innovation from another perspective (Johnson, 2008)? I suggest here that practitioners (engineers, managers, policymakers and their advisers and consultants) have been pioneering theorists of technological innovation, beginning in the 1950s. It is the practitioners’ view that scholars articulated later on and theorized about.

Figure I.1: Frequency of the terms “innovation” and “technological innovation” over time (Google Ngram)

To appreciate this, one has to deconstruct the standard historiography of innovation. The actual historiography mixes the history of the idea, or concept of innovation with that of invention, the history of technology with that of science, the history of development with that of research. Hence the acronyms R&D (research and development), ST (science and technology), then STI (science, technology and innovation) that serve as umbrellas. However, as John Jewkes, Professor of Economics at Merton College, Oxford, put it long ago: “It has become fashionable to speak of ‘science and technology’ in the singular as if what was true of one was inevitably true of the other. But the generalizations that can be made about the two in common are few” (Jewkes, 1960: 1).2 Similarly, a little later David Novick of RAND Corporation suggested: “We should stop talking about research and development as though they were an entity and examine research on its own and development as a separate and distinct activity” (Novick, 1965: 13; see also Novick, 1960).

Once these concepts are distinguished, we get a totally different story. This book revises the standard historiography of technological innovation. I document how, in a first step, one concept (research) gave rise to another (innovation) and how, in a second step, research got marginalized in the discourses on technological innovation. These two steps or stages correspond to two discourses, espoused by two different communities. One discourse postulates that innovation results from the application of science to industry. The issue at the heart of this discourse is research and development (R&D) and scientists and engineers, as assets to a country’s competitiveness. Here, innovation is an article of faith (the ultimate outcome emerging out of basic research), and not really theorized about. This discourse is still popular today. For example, R&D remains one of the key measurements of innovation and a key variable in models of innovation. The second discourse regards innovation as a complex activity that, if it refers to research at all, only does so as one part of a whole process. The most important part or step of this process is not research, but the development of products and their commercialization. Although originating from the same conceptual framework (growthmanship), research and innovation are opposite values.

I organize the history of the concept of technological innovation around five phases, from 1950 to the present. The phases are not strictly discrete and linear, but overlap:

1. Innovation as science applied
2. Innovation as outcome
3. Innovation as process
4. Innovation as system
5. Innovation policies

This book is the result of more than 20 years of research. It summarizes and develops further ideas originally documented in previous books (Godin, 2005, 2017, 2019). Over the course of my studies, I realized that the story of innovation as an idea is told from a strictly scholarly point of view, as though technological innovation as a concept and the study of innovation emerged and developed in academia. I thus started to seriously study the material from other sources that I had collected over the years. This led to the present book.3

To some, the documents on which the book rests will appear to include a large quantity of Anglo-Saxon sources. Right. The history of the concept of innovation over the centuries leads precisely to the predominant role of the United States in the twentieth century. The concept of innovation entered our everyday vocabulary in England during the Reformation. For the following three centuries, the concept had a predominantly negative and pejorative connotation (Godin, 2015). In the nineteenth century, the concept traveled to France where, after the Revolution, it gradually acquired a more positive value. Innovation is an instrument of material, social and political progress. Lately, in the twentieth century, people made of the concept a technological affair, with superlative overtones – a discourse that is more and more contested. The United States is a major contributor to this representation.

This book looks at the times when and the places where practitioners as thinkers and writers can be considered precursor theorists of technological innovation. The United States after the Second World War is such a place. Britain entered the field at the same time. Practitioners from other countries followed, under the influence of international organizations such as the OECD. The book gives equal place to all these contributors, to the extent that they have been “innovative ideologists”, to use intellectual historian Quentin Skinner’s term, redescribing the world in a new moral light (Skinner, 2002a, 2002b).


1. The story does not distinguish between the literature on research (or science) and that on innovation, hence the tendency to include a diversity of authors not concerned directly with innovation (like Arrow). The distinction between the two concepts is discussed at length in the present book.
2. See also Burns and Stalker, 1961: 156–73; Jewkes et al., 1958: 17–25, 197–222; Rosenberg, 1976.
3. The history documented in this book should not be interpreted as a marginalization of the scholarly contribution to the study of technological innovation. I wish to offer an additional perspective for those who want to understand the sources of ideas in culture and society.