Today, research and science is often associated to innovation (particularly by governments and funding agencies). I would like to understand how we got here and when the use of innovation as a buzzword started.

If we look to this Wikipedia page on innovation, it distinguishes between several types of innovation:

  • sustaining innovation
  • evolutionnary innovation
  • revolutionary innovation
  • disruptive innovation

Here are my questions:

  • What is the difference between innovation (and these types of innovation) and invention ? (noun)
  • What is the difference between innovate and invent? (verb)
  • What is the difference between an innovator and an inventor? (the one who acts)
  • What is the difference between innovative research and inventive research? (adjective)

Apart from the raw definition, I think that there are differences coming from the ideology behind innovation and how the term was introduced in the recent history of science. Any commentary and thoughts about that are appreciated too.

  • $\begingroup$ The original meaning of innovate was to change into something new or to introduce a new thing, often with a neg. connotation of it being at the expense of the traditional or the tried-and-true. "A desire to innovate all things..moveth troublesome men." (OED) Now the connotation is the change is both new and good, similar to advertisers' conflation of new and improved. In some contexts, innovation and invention seem indistinguishable: "The Office of Innovation Development (OID) fosters invention and entrepreneurship by providing full access to the U.S. intellectual property system." (US PTO) $\endgroup$
    – Michael E2
    Nov 9, 2017 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael-E2 The Office of Innovation Development webpages (uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/…) clearly show that they are concerned not only with inventions that could be patented, but also with (a few) quite different matters such as trade marks and protectable designs. This usage of 'innovation' thus confirms that the intended meaning is different and broader than 'invention', as already suggested in the answer (below) that I offered a while back. $\endgroup$
    – terry-s
    Nov 11, 2017 at 11:29

3 Answers 3


Dictionary sources including Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Cambridge, show 'invention' as connected by etymology with Latin 'invenire' (to find (out)): they offer what looks like essential agreement on a core of meaning relevant here: something, typically a process or device, that has been invented, discovered or contrived, something never made before; as well as sometimes giving more special meanings having to do with patents (law). (Not further considered here, of course, are widely different applications of the word 'invention' such as 'fiction' or 'genre of musical composition'.) Relevant dictionary definitions of 'innovation' often derive from the verb 'innovate': make changes in something established, introduce some new change or idea, &c.

It seems there is no generally-accepted and specific agreement about the boundaries of the concept 'innovation'. A recent (2016) survey of 15 'experts' gave rather widely various answers about what they thought of the meaning of 'innovation' -- results that appear to support an idea that the concept 'innovation' has somewhat broad fuzzy boundaries, not necessarily a bad thing if one wishes to have a word of wide application for a general discussion. ('Idea to Value, Community for Creativity and Innovation': at https://www.ideatovalue.com/inno/nickskillicorn/2016/03/innovation-15-experts-share-innovation-definition/)

In practical usage a distinction between the two appears connected with the way in which the meaning of 'invention' has to some degree been side-tracked by the complicated laws of patents for inventions. Originally, an 'invention' in law was also something new-created and practical and specially useful -- special enough to deserve the grant of exclusive trade privileges for a set period, e.g. 14 years. Over long periods of time, the legal definitions of invention in many countries have effectively become much more complex [US Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, https://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/ ; Guidelines for Examination in the European Patent Office, https://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/guidelines.html .]

Against this background, a significant practical use of the word 'innovation' is to allow discussions about technical progress without the discussions becoming side-tracked into legalistic arguments about what exactly constitutes an invention, whether in law or otherwise. This can be helpful for example in broad-based discussions about technical progress that either have nothing to do with questions of patents, or are not to be limited to that topic.

{Added 14 November:} Besides the views expressed in the 'expert survey' already cited, another (and official) example shows a usage of 'innovation' that is broader than 'invention'. The website of the Office of Innovation Development, part of the US Patent and Trademark Office, refers to "our Innovation Development webpage", which turns out to give information for "inventors and entrepreneurs" that concerns not only inventions but also some quite different matters such as trade marks and protectable designs. (Acknowledgement to Michael E2 for drawing attention to the example).

'Innovation' can thus be a broader and more general word than 'invention'. It remains up to any particular writer either to say, more specifically, what s/he means by 'innovation' in any discussion, or else to leave it accepted that the word is somewhat vague. The same applies to whatever is meant by saying that some innovations are 'sustaining', 'evolutionary', 'revolutionary, or 'disruptive': these are vague words with no generally accepted specific definitions in the context. Articles may be written about the way in which some particular author understands and uses such concepts: and the articles may sometimes imply an assumption that the usage that they employ amounts to a generally-recognized definition -- even where no such general recognition really exists. Specific definitions may begin to be needed in special circumstances -- for example if the status of 'innovation' ever brings with it some tangible benefit. But there we begin to come full circle on the reason why there are two words in this area rather than one.

  • $\begingroup$ Would anybody care to identify reason for markdown? $\endgroup$
    – terry-s
    May 14, 2018 at 1:09

Fundamentally speaking, there is no distinction.

However, innovation is the word adopted by business change management in management studies to both study and manage the process of change which comes with the various and diverse inventions of industrialised capitalism and to theorise a typology of invention with respect to how influential it is - hence the various kinds mentioned in the post - sustaining, evolutionary, revolutionary and disruptive. This also explains its adoption as a term by government funding agencies and the like.

One important thing to note is that managing innovation is not the same as innovation itself (even if one innovates in the field of managing innovation). This is just as important a distinction in other fields - we don't expect an art critic to neccessarily be any good at painting or drawing after all; and generally speaking, they usually aren't. Likewise with managing innovation and innovation itself. Whilst art can live without art critics and for a long time didn't; art critics cannot live without artists and their making of art. Likewise, we can view the field of innovation studies as an ephiphenenon of the higher pace of innovation in society as it becomes more literate and more skilled in the various arts, that is techne - ie crafts.


The word invention is often tied to patents and so it picks up meanings from patent law. Innovation can be anything new, patentable or not.

Long before the US Revolutionary War, the monarch of England could grant a patent for whatever reason, even on things that were already in general use such as playing cards. In contrast, the Framers of the US Constitution authorized Congress to promote the useful arts by granting an exclusive right (what would become parents) to "inventors" for their "discoveries." This slowly led to the development of a requirement of non-obviousness.

Before the term disruptive innovation was coined, a similar concept existed that some inventions are "pioneering." Pioneering invention are rare and have little or no prior art in the field. A pioneering invention may become a disruptive innovation, or it may become a complete flop.

  • $\begingroup$ The sources actually say the opposite of what is posted in this answer about the old English patent practice. In the well-known 'case of monopolies' (Darcy v Allin (or Alleyn) (1602 74 ER 1131) (English Reports) (reprinted in many other books) the Court decided that the king may grant "a monopoly patent for some reasonable time" to an inventor in the case of a "new trade ... or any engine ... that never was used before" but "otherwise not". The "otherwise not" led to the patent being declared void and outside the royal power to grant. $\endgroup$
    – terry-s
    Jul 10, 2017 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ To clarify, the "case of monopolies" was about the very playing cards in the example. It was before this case that the monarch could grant a patent for whatever reason. This case ended the practice, but that does not change the fact that the Queen had granted such a monopoly to Darcy. which is what gave Darcy standing to sue. $\endgroup$
    – phr
    Feb 4, 2018 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ There is a difference between exercising a power according to law, and doing something that is not according to law. The grant of the playing cards patent was found to be not according to law. That makes it unrealistic to say as the answer does that the crown "could grant a patent for whatever ...": which is only true in the trivial sense that anybody "could" do anything illegal -- until the law catches up with them. $\endgroup$
    – terry-s
    Feb 6, 2018 at 9:55

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