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The Science & Psychology of Innovation

March 26, 2007

Browsing the business section of a bookstore may yield dozens of titles purporting to explain the process of innovation. This newsletter and most others serving the nation’s policymakers and science and technology communities have covered reports calling for a national innovation strategy. Unfortunately, most meetings on the subject have to begin by developing a working definition of the term innovation that most can accept. The use or overuse of the word, particularly in calls for needing more of it or business books on how to do it, threatens to reduce innovation to a meaningless buzzword that loses hope of having any real value.


Fortunately, slightly removed from political circles, there are those interested in understanding the basis of innovation and discovery with a scientific grounding. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently released the proceedings of an August 2006 workshop exploring what is known about how innovation and discovery occurs on the individual and team level. The panelists' conclusion? Not much, particularly related to understanding engineering and design.


After hearing the state-of-the-art on understanding innovation and discovery from three perspectives - that of cognitive scientists, social psychologists and engineers - the 24 workshop participants developed an outline of several topics of research to cultivate an interdisciplinary “psychological science” of individual and team innovation and discovery and laid out expectations for improved understanding of the issue over a 20-year time span. NSF will use the list to guide future investments in research on the topic. The workshop recommended NSF support:

  • Studies that expand understanding of the cognitive mechanisms of innovation/creativity and the ways in which strategies and external tools influence these cognitive mechanisms;
  • Computational modeling and agents simulations of innovation/creativity that allow for theoretical development across levels of individual group, and organizational analysis;
  • Empirical studies and computational models that explore the temporal dynamics of individual and group factors on creativity/innovation;
  • Interdisciplinary programs of research that coordinate psychology laboratory and design engineering experiments; and
  • Empirical studies that unpack cognitive and social/motivational factors of group cognition in more realistic group settings.

For those curious, the workshop began by developing a common language regarding creativity and innovation. Innovation, participants decided, is a subset of creativity that “involves the creation of a new idea, but also involves its implementation, adoption and transfer. Innovation and discovery transform insight and technology into novel products, processes, and services that create value for stakeholders and society. Innovations and discoveries are the tangible outcomes.”


The report on the August 2006 workshop proceedings into “The Scientific Basis of Individual and Team Innovation and Discovery” is available as a PDF at: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2007/nsf0725/nsf0725.pdf


Copies of the individual presentations are available at: http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/schunn/innov2006/talks/schedule.htm