Innovating innovation

Profiles of Norwegian Science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
Is innovation in a light bulb?

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Innovation! The ever-present buzzword can mean anything to anyone. Especially when it’s so frequently represented by a boring, standard light bulb. But the concept is used and investigated in science, with a variety of pieces already published this year on innovation in Norway.

Rune D. Fitjar from the Business School at the University of Stavanger led one paper on the role of cities, and collaborating across different distances, for business innovation in Norway for research and development. The researchers covered four innovation dimensions related to products and services in the market, methods for their work, organizational and decision-making changes, and marketing approaches.

Their analysis challenges the mantra that cities breed innovation. Within Norway, it made little difference for a business to be based in a city rather than in a rural area. Local or international collaboration supported different types of innovation, demonstrating the need for both.

The authors explain why their results might be valid for Norway only, especially considering that the country does not have large cities by international standards. They also describe how their source of data lacks many important influencers, including informality and movement of workers. Their paper nonetheless provides valuable lessons by overturning the orthodoxy that cities necessarily support innovation.

In another just-published study, Cecilie Anvik from Nord Universitet headed a quintet of authors using one eldercare home in Norway to explore how innovation could emerge when working there. They see innovation as new ways for improving care, so they focused on how new approaches could be learned and applied. The ultimate goal is to use science for society, hoping that their results and recommendations will permit care home staff and managers to support learning and innovation for doing better at their work.

They observed activities in the facility, conducted interviews, ran group discussions, and presented the research to those involved in order to garner feedback on how the staff improved their training and implemented these skills in day-to-day operations. Systematic approaches to learning and training were balanced with personal knowledge and understanding to best acquire and try out new ways of operating. Facilitating the sharing of information and ideas boosts innovation success.

The third study from 2020 was led by Marte C.W. Solheim from the appropriately named Centre for Innovation Research at the University of Stavanger. The team looked at how employees in manufacturing corporations in Norway use their work and life experiences for improving innovation.

Without really defining “innovation,” they distinguish between “incremental” and “radical” innovation. The former is smallish changes, with each step related to the previous one while “radical innovation” refers to something entirely new, which has not been seen before.

Factors examined include the workers’ education, how much the corporation is involved in research and development, and whether the location is urban or rural. This multitude of influences makes recommendations complex, but the general suggestion was that incremental innovation has links to worker experience, whereas radical innovation depends more on how the corporation seeks and supports innovation.

The importance of, and a clear pattern from, these three articles is that innovation, no matter how it is defined, is multifaceted. Whereas many associate innovation solely with products—particularly technologies or in economic terms—innovation science is clear that governance and cultural innovations are essential for all other innovations to succeed. The scientists researching innovation in Norway accept products as one possible innovation outcome, alongside services, ideas, actions, methods, and behaviors.

This work covers not only what the innovations are, but also how they arise. With experience, learning, links to others, and context explicitly investigated, insights indicate how leaders can create and nourish environments in which innovation is more likely to be produced.

Yet this attitude assumes that innovation is always desired and useful. The papers presented little dissection of possible circumstances in which striving for and achieving innovation might be counterproductive or could inhibit an organization in achieving its goals. No inevitability exists that innovations are positive or provide needed results, from innovative weaponry to governance structures accruing power at the top while reducing accountability.

Further exploring where innovation is not needed would be highly innovative for the science of innovation.

The papers discussed here, in order, are at:




This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.