Research, Develop, Innovate … or not?


A recent conversation with some colleagues has made me think about how the choice and understanding of certain terms represents the mental image we have of them. The conversation revolved around companies’ innovation policies and specifically on how for many of the companies that we meet daily the research concept refers to aspects that are actually much better denoted as innovation. I think that this suggests how removed the model of some companies is from integrating innovation into their daily processes.

When asked about what we do at Ingeniacity, we usually refer to our work as Engineering Innovation. We use this definition in contrast to more classical engineering models which are restricted to the field of calculation and the composition of complex systems simply as the assembly of parts. Our concept of engineering is closer to what is understood as design engineering. By calling it “innovation”, we highlight the innovative touch we try to bring to our work, both in methodology and results. For us, innovation must be part of the engineering process. It is, after all, clearly stated in the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) definition that engineering is “the set of knowledge oriented to the invention and use of techniques for the exploitation of natural resources or industrial activity.” It is the reference to “invention” that we wish to emphasize.

If you consider this definition of engineering, it shouldn’t be necessary to highlight these distinctions. However, this does not seem to be the vision in many companies, and it is even more surprising that this is neither the case in engineering companies. In our case, we quite often find ourselves justifying why the work we carry out every day is not research.

Returning to RAE, we can see that it defines research as: “Performing intellectual and experimental activities in a systematic way in order to increase knowledge on a specific subject”. A key concept in this definition is that the objective of research is to increase knowledge. Even when we refer to applied research, we speak about this knowledge being aimed at an immediate application. In other words, research, by definition, is aimed at increasing knowledge. So how do we account for the confusion or interest in calling research what it is not. I personally believe that this is where a mistaken understanding of the innovation process lies.

In today’s world, the idea of a company being innovative is highly valued. Creating this type of image helps to sell products, even internally in many cases. The company internalizes that what it does is innovative, and this is reassuring in terms of perceived risks and its own competitiveness. Yet, is it true that the company is innovative? What does this have to do with the perception one has of the way work is done by the rest? The relationship is in a perceived hierarchy of the concepts of research, development and innovation. If the company considers that an activity presented to it looks like presented as an innovation something that it does not do, this activity must be research. Otherwise, we would have to conclude that the company does not innovate or is not innovative.

As a matter of course, we conduct research at Ingeniacity. However, the bulk of what we do is development and innovation. In the projects for our customers we apply the knowledge gained through our own research as well as that of others. Applying this knowledge to create a new product is not research. Undoubtedly, there are cases where the product is so innovative that it requires research, but this is not the common case.

In our case, we have encountered situations in which established engineering methodologies, such as upfront engineering, are considered research simply because they use numerical simulations. There is no doubt that some simulations are research tools, but its use in designing elements is not for this purpose. You could say that it is an innovation in work methodology, but this does not imply an innovative product. The tool does not make innovation, but in most cases, it serves to helps. Using a sophisticated tool does not necessarily mean we are innovating.

Another typical example is promoting the activity that is carried out. These are the cases which we refer to as research when, in fact, we should say innovation or, at most, development. Some examples include the transfer of technology from one sector to another or replacing a material by another one. This may indeed be an innovation but requires little or no research in most cases.

This may seem like a simple discussion about semantics. However, the mental image that each term brings to mind influences our way of working. If we really want to have innovation-based companies, we should understand what we are talking about. This will allow us to be demanding of ourselves and our processes. In this way, we will restore the ingenuity part of engineering.