Incubating innovation – learning from the world of sport

With so much money and planning going into innovation it is easy to forget the old truism that necessity is the mother of all inventions.

Incubating innovation - learning from the world of sport 2So much is being made of the need to create spaces and projects to nurture innovation. Since the explosion in smartphone use, app culture has erupted and spread over to Europe. The Silicon Valley model has been emulated in the UK – from Fen roundabout in Cambridge, to the Silicon Roundabout in east London, to Croydon, the latest tech hot house.

In a recent article Ed Smith, New Statesmen columnist, shows that some of the major changes in sport came about because individual players, often mavericks, needed to finds solution to a specific problem.

He tests out a hypothesis of a new book, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, that challenges the idea that the scientific method leads to innovation:

It is invention that leads to science. In the Industrial Revolution, the jennies and looms that transformed cotton-spinning were invented by tinkering businessmen, by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’, rather than by conceptual thinkers.

Smith, a former England cricketer turned author, shows how sports as diverse as cricket, baseball and football all owe the major changes to the actions of individuals – often against their best advisors.

In athletics, coaches initially tried to dissuade a restless high jumper from major innovation before the 1968 Olympics. He wanted to jump over the bar face up, back down – something no one had done before. The new technique was considered strange and ungainly. He did it anyway, winning the gold medal in Mexico and breaking the world record. Dick Fosbury had just invented the ‘Fosbury Flop’. It quickly became the standard technique.

His conclusion can easily be applied to developing apps for health solutions:

Sport is about problem-solving. A challenge is set: hit the ball over the boundary; jump over the bar. From then on, solutions evolve, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident … That is why innovation owes more to environment than directed planning. Sporting cultures open to change, innovation and risk will find the back of the net more often.

It reminds us that while having the infrastructure and institutional support seems like the correct way to promote innovative thinking, it should not overshadow the individual spirit of innovation.


Interested in apps, health and behaviour change? The next District Health event is being held on 18 September at 19:00 in Central London. 

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About Colby Benari

Colby has been running District Health since the summer of 2013. Her background is in biomedical science and support of academic research infrastructure.

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