Innovation Like An Epidemiologist

What if innovation was like epidemiology? What if we wanted to understand the source, scope, scale, and spread of an idea or product?

That’s one way that we think about the innovation process.

Innovation – like a virus — is similar to infectious disease epidemiology. Both of these areas look at the development of something, its effects, its spread, and how it scales over time. Both innovation and epidemiology require evaluation as well.

Viral Innovation

The parallels between infectious disease epidemiology and innovation are many. The first of these parallels is between a virus and an innovation.

A virus develops and mutates as it has more exposure to hosts. A virus ‘learns’ from what it does and adapts to fit a changing context. Innovation does the same thing only with an idea, product, or service. For innovators, the aim is for healthy development and the creation and distribution of the product or service. This is what research and development and marketing is all about.

Innovation and epidemiology are also both interested in the spread and scale of things. If an innovation works well in a context we might want it to spread to other contexts. Innovators often want their products to scale as far and as wide as possible. Sometimes innovations scale and sometimes they don’t.

The way we know this is through conducting detailed, systematic monitoring and evaluation.

Epidemiology, like innovation, is driven by evidence from the laboratory and the real world together.

Stages of Development

At Cense, we also look to another parallel between the two areas: research and development.

Innovation develops in four stages that are similar to phases of research trials.

The role of design and evaluation is different for each stage. At Stages 1 and 2 the emphasis is on working with innovators to align their intentions with their design to explore what it (the innovation) does and how it does it. This is where design thinking and strategy are most prominent.

At Stages 3 and 4, the aim is to build an evidence base and strategy to spread and scale the innovation. At these stages, the focus is on marketing, distribution, and amplification. Evaluation in these stages focuses on the larger impact and the means by which the innovation is implemented and adopted for use across contexts.

Like an epidemiologist, its important to collect data to support moving the innovation from each stage. It’s also important to explore what kind of effects — positive and harmful – are generated at each stage.

At Cense, we work with our clients to design the right evaluation and strategy for each stage of development. There are no ‘one-size fits all’ approaches to innovation. Much like with a virus, an innovator must know what their innovation does and what will change at each stage and scale of its development.

What is key is designing data collection and strategy that is fit for purpose.

Viruses aim to spread and survive just like innovations. By thinking like an epidemiologist you can help your innovation to survive and thrive like the best kind of virus.

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

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