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This is what ‘innovation’ means to professionals who do it for a living

One definition: "If you're always looking over someone’s shoulder, by definition, you’re imitating, not innovating."

The Philly skyline. (Photo by J. Fusco, courtesy of Visit Philadelphia)

This editorial article is a part of's Corporate Innovation Month of our editorial calendar.

What does the word “innovation” really mean?

The term has risen to buzzword status in the last few years. We’ve seen innovation centers pop up across the city at various institutions, and we’re focusing on corporate innovation for our editorial calendar theme for this month.

When we announced Philly Tech Week’s 2020 theme earlier this week, our CEO, Chris Wink, outlined’s definition: “In the newsroom, we define innovation as the process for developing new solutions for old problems,” he said.

While reporting this month, we’ve heard a wide range of answers to this question. We wanted to know how professionals across the region, especially those tasked in their day-to-day with innovating their institutions, look at the term. What does it mean to them?

Marion Leary is the director of innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, and her job focuses on the way the school educates current and future nurses to be leaders in the healthcare industry, she said.

“We define innovation as the application of something new or different that delivers value,” Leary wrote in an email. “Innovation is not just technology or widgets, but it also includes the methodologies we use to solve problems, the products, processes and systems we create and how we communicate information to our patients, their families, and communities at large.”

Leary also teaches a class called “Innovation in Health: Foundations of Design Thinking,” which teaches students from across the university design thinking methodology — working through that process together while creating solutions for real health or healthcare problems.

Although innovation can be more than incorporating new technology, that’s part of the process, too, Leary said.

“It can include incorporating edtech into the classrooms, and beginning to think differently about how we are educating our students, for instance using virtual reality in conjunction with simulation,” she said.

In the private sector, especially in retail atmospheres, innovation looks different.

Bob Cooper, the chief innovation officer at J.W. Pepper, a sheet music business based in Exton, said at a recent stakeholder meeting that a lot of his job is just asking “why?”

It's like driving. You have to look ahead, but you should also be using that peripheral vision to keep an eye on what's behind you.

“Why are we having this meeting? Why are we doing something this way?” he said. “The answer is that it has to reconnect in a radical way to the endgame. We’ve got to innovate around what we do, currently.”

There are a lot of different ways to think about innovation, he said, but ultimately, your innovation has to resonate with your company’s purpose.

“It’s like driving,” he said. “You have to look ahead, but you should also be using that peripheral vision to keep an eye on what’s behind you.”

Cooper also added that he’s seen corporations lately throwing more money at research and development to become innovators, something that was popular in the 1960s and 70s and has returned, he said.

Patrick Hayakawa, the VP of innovation and emerging technologies at the Chester County Economic Development Council, agreed with Cooper.

“I do think some folks have been ‘outsourcing’ innovation,” he said, by putting a call out for ideas, or holding innovation contests.

Hayakawa said it can be easier to define what innovation is not: when folks point at the next city over and say “we need to be innovative like that.”

“If you’re always looking over someone’s shoulder, by definition, you’re imitating, not innovating,” he said.

And for those who work in the public sector, like Andrew Buss and Eliza Pollack, innovation means ensuring that your current processes and services are working most efficiently.

“We are certainly not in the business of selling, and I think that’s one of the other differences of what [innovation] looks like to us compared to the private sector,” said Pollack, the assistant director of innovation strategy for the City of Philadelphia. “The motivations behind innovations are very different.”

Governments do not operate to make a profit, and they aren’t answering to shareholders, she said. One of Pollack’s main motivators comes from wanting to change the stigma that government offers slow and ineffective services. She acknowledged that often, a service a city provides is the only one available of its kind, so people in charge of the city’s innovation aught to want to make those services the best they can be.

Buss, the deputy chief innovation officer for the Office of Innovation Management, was the first person in Philly’s city government to have the term in his title, about six years ago (followed very closely by Pollack).

He feels it trickled over from the private sector and has certainly become a buzzword or “hot topic” in city governments.

“We talk a lot about how we feel throwing the term around, and we think of it as organizational transformation,” he said. “But it’s also the motivation to start new programs, or think about how what we’re doing could be improved.”

Both said they now constantly see titles like “chief innovation officer” or “head of innovation” in both public and private sectors, which is an exciting and positive thing.

“The way we do innovation is very different than [the way] Comcast does it, than Vanguard does it,” Pollack said. “It’s hard when we all use the same phrase, but organizations just have to be clear about what innovation means to them.”

Companies: City of Philadelphia
Series: Corporate Innovation Month 2019
People: Eliza Pollack / Andrew Buss / Marion Leary

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