Thoughts on Innovation

How a World-Class Inventor and Innovator Thinks About Innovation

June 9, 2011

What can you learn from a true innovator? A lot! Olof Söderblom, a world-class innovator whose inventions, such as Token Ring networking, have transformed industries, presents his thoughts on invention and innovation. He looks particularly at technological innovation and what the results are when technology is implemented to realize an opportunity or solve a problemin a more efficient or effective manner.


Olof Söderblom is an inveterate inventor and innovator. All of his life, he has observed problems and gaps and created innovative solutions. Many of these have been widely deployed, and commercially successful. He holds an impressive portfolio of patents.

In May 2011, Olof joined the board of The Innovation Knowledge Foundation (THINK!), an international not-for-profit think tank based in Milan, Italy, whose aim is to circulate knowledge on how digital technologies can enable innovation processes, economic growth, and human development. Olof presented this paper to the Board of THINK in May, 2011.


Enter “define innovation” as a Google search and you will receive 37,400,000 results in 0.10 seconds! We take this for granted without reflecting on the history of innovation in computer, network, and software design that combined make this astonishing technology possible (more on this later). Equally, we fail to contemplate the consequences of the ever accelerating rate of invention and innovation. Current Internet applications will seem as antiquated in 20 years as Morse code communication over HF radio, the norm 50 years ago, is regarded now.

I did not have the time nor the inclination to read through the 37,400,000 documents available to find a consistent definition of “innovation,” specifically “technological innovation,” so I will contribute my own:

Technological innovation results when technology is implemented to realize an opportunity or solve a problem in a more efficient or effective manner.

Technological Innovation

I stress “technological innovation” because innovation in other fields, and I think especially of the arts, can hardly be said to “realize an opportunity or solve a problem.” Did, for example, Edgar Allan Poe think about these things when he invented the modern detective story; Joseph Hayden when he invented the string quartet; the impressionists in the mid 19th century, or Michel de Montaigne when he wrote the first Essay in 1580 — the form in which this document is written? There was no one-to-one relationship between problem or opportunity and the invention. If anything, they perhaps saw an opportunity to express themselves in an innovative way. On the other hand, Bartolomeo Cristofori certainly had a problem to solve in mind when he invented the Piano e Forte in the very early 18th century.

INNOVATION VERSUS INVENTION. The distinction between “innovation” and “invention” warrants an Essay itself. An innovation can, for example, be the novel use of an invention or when ideas accepted in one sphere are transplanted to another. An innovation results from an invention and can also be the result of employing existing inventions in new applications. An example is the transistor, an invention which has formed the basis for countless inventions based on innovative application of the technology, each of these spawning new innovative applications, etc., etc.

For the purposes of this Essay I will use the two words invention and innovation to mean roughly that an invention solves a problem and may, in addition, be the basis for one or more innovations. Invention and innovation should be based on the need to solve a problem (more later) but the solution of a problem does not necessarily involve an invention or innovation. Both have, however you define them, been prerequisites for the progress of mankind.

Can’t Be Mandated. Neither invention nor innovation can be mandated. They are the result of a creative process akin to an art form. In 1978 I accepted the challenge to solve a peculiar problem: How to accurately compute the closest distance between an anti-aircraft projectile and an airborne target (towed by a very fast aircraft) when all you know is that the projectile is supersonic. The solution is based on several characteristics of the Mach waves generated by the projectile; such as the fact that the sine of the angle of the bow wave is equal to the reciprocal of the Mach number of the projectile and that the angle of the stern wave is different. A geometrical orientation of five piezo-electric sensors in front of the target register very accurately the time intervals of the passing Mach waves. Based on this data, the position of the projectile when the Mach waves that passed the target were generated as well as the track of the projectile in relation to the target track can be computed. The closest distance between projectile and target is the closest distance between these two vectors. The invention is patented worldwide and used, in several variants, for training purposes by defence forces in many countries 1 .

When I started to think about the problem, and research the properties of Mach waves, there was no way of knowing that there was, in fact, a solution. In other words, the invention could not have been mandated. I mention this also to highlight the fact that inventions and innovations are often based on “lateral thinking,” i.e., they result from combinations of knowledge; in this case physics, mathematics, electronics, and computing.


Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. Putting this adage in the context of my definition of technological innovation would define “necessity” as either an opportunity or a problem. I believe this generally to have been true. There are examples of inventions or innovations that were “solutions in search of a problem” at the time they were made — the LASER is a prime example - but, in general, the problem or opportunity came before the solution, and, more importantly, was the impetus to find a solution.

INNOVATIONS CONTRIBUTE TO COMMERCIAL PROGRESS. The mother of all innovation was the development of hunting and farming tools and techniques that allowed the family unit to produce food in excess of its own needs. Nothing of current developed civilization would have been possible without this breakthrough many thousand years before the Common Era.

Inventions in communications and transportation have dominated, which is not surprising given that these are prime requirements for economic development. I remember flying back to London from New York on a Concorde on December 17, 1983. The date did not seem significant until the Captain reminded us that this was only the 80th anniversary of man’s first powered flight by Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, South Carolina. He flew 37 meters in 12 seconds. We were about to land after having covered 6,000 kilometers in four hours. The Concorde made a very smooth category IIIB landing (fully automatic, no human intervention, normally used in zero visibility conditions) despite the clear evening, just to emphasize the point!

Telecommunications have experienced a correspondingly startling development...


1) Dr Lasse Karlsen of the Stockholm Institute of Technology contributed to the invention, including brilliant mathematics, and is listed as co-inventor.

THINK! - The Innovation Knowledge Foundation, is an international no-profit think-tank based in Milan, Italy, whose aim is to circulate knowledge on how digital technologies can enable innovation processes, economic growth and human development. This essay by Olof Söderblom was originally published by the foundation.

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