Innovation is the process of introducing something novel into an existing system. The term is typically used to describe the introduction of novel products or services in markets. The novelty implied in innovation is relative, i.e. it has to be novel with regards to the context into which it is introduced. A well established technology in one context, for example, can be an innovation in another.

Another important aspect of innovation is that it is successful in its context. The introduction of a new technology that is not taken up by the market is typically not considered an innovation. And while innovation is typically market oriented, it does not have to be. One can speak of social innovation where new ideas are brought to bear on social situations.

The discourse on responsible research and innovation tends to equate these, even though there is some awareness that they are fundamentally different. Research aims at the production of new knowledge (see entry research) which may but does not have to end up in innovation. Innovation on the other hand, can use new knowledge but does not have to. Innovation normally has an economic motivation. The transition from research to innovation is a key problem of current research. Research and innovation policy, certainly on the European level, wants to use research and innovation to solve practical problems such as unemployment or demographic challenges. This implies a more or less linear chain of events from the discovery of new knowledge to the use of this knowledge in new products or services to a broad adoption in social systems and markets. Such a linear relationship is not always realistic to expect.

One key problem is that different actors have different capabilities and interests. The actors with most experience and interest in research, i.e. researchers, typically university based, often lack understanding or motivation to engage in innovation. CSOs often pursue knowledge for the purposes of their constituents and are interested in social innovation, but less so in the market aspect of it. Industry is typically best placed to introduce innovations in markets but requires marketable research results. Where innovations may be socially important but unlikely to lead to profits, industry often lacks the motivation to pursue them.