August 21, 2021

You don't have to be original to innovate


Often, people misconstrue and conflate the notion of the originality of an idea with innovation. The word idea itself comes from the Greek “idea” (form, pattern) from the root of “idein” (to see).

Ideas are reflexive; they derive from things we see and read. It is a combination of our brain connecting the dots (pattern recognition) across our experiences, backgrounds with different ideas and concepts that lead to “newer” ideas that we perceive as “original.”

Innovation doesn’t necessarily lie in the originality of something — it lies in making something accessible in a way like never before. Even the technologies that we believe to be “innovative” came from someone or something else. Here are two examples to illustrate this:

Ride Sharing

Is Uber or Lyft original? No. They are Taxi 2.0. So why and how are they “innovative” if they aren’t original? 👀

They were able to make ridesharing more accessible through technology, which is often the primary catalyst for democratization. Uber didn’t re-invent the wheel by creating an entirely new mode of transportation. They looked at a broken system (public transit) and re-packaged it via the use of technology (using phones to request a car). This act of re-packaging was the innovation that enabled them to control 100% of the entire ridesharing market in the United States.

Now, other countries have their versions of Uber and Lyft: Didi in China, Grab in East Asia, Ola in India, etc.

Not so bad for an unoriginal idea.


I bet you have heard of the multi-touch display — it’s something we use every day in the form of a smartphone! We all remember the iconic Steve Jobs iPhone presentation when he revealed what would change the course of how we would interact with technology itself.

Well, the multi-touch technology came roughly 35 years before the iPhone did, yet we remember Steve Jobs and iPhone for bringing this “innovative” to us. Why is that? It’s because, similar to Uber, Apple didn’t re-invent the wheel — they re-purposed a technology and made it way easier to use and accessible.

Multi-touch by itself is just a technology — multi-touch with gestures on a phone is innovation. 📱

Now What?

It’s important to understand that you don’t have to be original to be innovative. If you think Zapier is innovative because they are the first ones to do software automation, then think again. Yahoo did it five years before Zapier with Yahoo! Pipes (now defunct). Zapier simply re-packaged it in a way that is more accessible for those with little to no coding experience (APIs/automation democratized).

Crazy right?! 🤯

Similarly for Webflow — Webflow is democratizing the building experience (making it accessible) so that anyone can build on the web. That’s not original — that’s innovation (web development democratized)!

Think about how technologies can be utilized and packaged in a way that leads to innovation.

How can education be innovated? 🚫
How can x be used to democratize education? ✅
How can healthcare be innovated? 🚫
Can healthcare be re-packaged in a way that makes it more accessible? ✅

Technology, by itself, is a means to an end for innovation — leveraging technology to make something more accessible is innovation.

In a way, what we call innovation just are “ideas” that are borrowed, but re-purposed. It’s re-imagining something old in a newer context.

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