The magic word in these days of global competition, for corporations and governments, marketers and educators, is innovation. How often do we hear that companies must innovate to survive and countries must innovate to compete? It is the purported and de rigueur key to success promoted at Davos and other high-level conferences.
Most of us would agree we do indeed live in an age of innovation, where new clothing designs, space-saving cappuccino machines, smartphone apps and even business strategies capture headlines and cocktail party buzz because they represent something new.
Yes, everybody loves innovation, and innovation is everywhere. But not all innovation is created equal.
When we talk about the most exceptional kind of innovation, the product of inspiration and hard work and significant investments of time and/or money, the concrete fruition of an idea that can change people's lives, we give it a more venerated name: invention.
Unfortunately, many of us have forgotten what it takes to incentivize the hard work, investment and creativity that bring new inventions into the world. Or maybe we have simply been blinded by short-term interests. Even as we celebrate the merits of innovation and incessantly talk about the growing significance of a knowledge-based economy, it has become all too easy to take for granted the legal and economic frameworks that made the technological wonders of modern life possible and are essential to kindling future advances.
Take the mobile phone, which was found to be the most useful invention of all time by more than 70 percent of respondents to a recent global poll published in TIME Magazine. Of course, it's not one invention, but the product of hundreds if not thousands. Each new smartphone has its own uniquely cool features that we, as consumers, value, and the marketplace is the metric by which we measure which feature is most preferred or which manufacturer does it better. Sometimes it's a new function that wins consumers' hearts, sometimes it's form -- the look, the feel, the placement of buttons -- and sometimes it's a combination of the two. We all value and appreciate these innovative distinctions and marvel at the spectrum of choices.
But what about the science and engineering that make all smartphones possible, that let hundreds of millions of people at the very same moment talk to a friend on the other side of the globe or access key business data or download the latest hit song or book or movie -- all using the same spectrum that less than two decades ago was limited to carrying a limited number of very expensive voice calls that frequently suffered interruption. Now that's innovation. That's invention.
The history of invention is a fascinating tale of humankind working to discover how we can live better, happier, healthier lives. From the wheel to the airplane, the light bulb to the radio telescope, the telegraph to the smartphone, penicillin to portable AIDS diagnostics kits, the act of invention is intertwined with the broader societal and economic history of our world.
I was pleased to read in the TIME poll that I'm not alone in appreciating invention. Nearly 85 percent of the consumers who responded to the poll said they think we live in an age of invention, and a vast majority said the more their country supports invention the more their country will thrive economically.
The key to that support is the protection of intellectual property (IP). The poll found patents are considered crucial for the invention process because they offer the best incentive for inventors to strive to create something new and useful and the only guarantee that inventors and their financial backers will recoup a return on their invested time and money. More than 80 percent of global business decision-makers in the survey said they want stronger protection for intellectual property, and it was respondents in emerging-market economies -- expressing envy for the strong patent systems in industrial nations -- who were the most likely to seek stronger IP rights and the promotion of economic equality that comes with them. The poll results are recognition that a patent represents a rule-of-law promise that any inventor, large or small, is the owner of the invention she or he has worked hard to create.
I write this with an avowed interest in both invention and protection for inventors' rights.
At my organization, invention has been the central focus for more than 28 years. We invented the mobile technologies that made wireless telephones a possibility for people all around the world, and then advanced those technologies to make possible your smartphones and your wireless tablet computers and all the extraordinary ways they connect you to the world.
But we couldn't have succeeded without patents. The changes we offered two decades ago were met with derision and commercial resistance from much of the wireless industry. Yet we were able to reassure our early investors with the promise that our patents would protect their investments. Now we are a company that employs around 31,000 people -- mostly engineers developing the next generation of mobile communications -- as we continue to work collaboratively with nearly the entire wireless industry, which we helped nurture through our licensing business model.
Our patents allow us to keep introducing the most transformative wireless technologies you can imagine in ways that promote competition among handset makers and lower prices for consumers. Patents are the critical element of our virtuous circle of investment in research and development, invention, licensing our invented technologies, plugging much of that licensing revenue back into more research and development, which in turn produces new inventions.
I agree with the poll respondents that we do live in an age of invention, and that's no accident.
As the great inventor Dean Kamen recently told an audience in Washington, D.C., patents let us take the risks of trying to do what no one has done before and fail plenty of times until we succeed because we know that success will be rewarded.
But Kamen also warned that current government attempts in the United States to weaken patent rights pose big risks to the entire invention and innovation environment, and that if the U.S. government doesn't increase incentives to invent, the country will lose its edge.
At a time when patent rights are under fire in many parts of the world, that's a warning all governments should take seriously. As the TIME poll respondents did, take a moment to think about where in the world you see the most innovation and inventing taking place, and how much those phenomena are tied to the rule of law and respect for intellectual property rights.
Yes, we all love innovation, and especially invention. Companies and countries that want to thrive amid global competition should remember that.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2014 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 22-25). The Forum's Strategic Partner community comprises a select group of leading global companies representing diverse regions and industries that have been selected for their alignment with the Forum's commitment to improving the state of the world. Read all the posts in the series here.