The world desperately needs a new generation of big dreaming inventors
The buzzword “innovation” has become something of a mantra for the technology sector, designed to stimulate the out-of-the-box thinking needed to come up with winning products against ever tougher competition. But innovation is perhaps as wrong a mantra today as it was in the seventeenth century when, according to an article in The Atlantic, innovators were more likely to have their ears cut off and be thrown into jail than celebrated. What we need today, more than ever, is not innovation, but invention.
The difference is subtle but important: The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to innovate” as “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products” (my italics). The dictionary says the word traces its roots back to the Latin “innovat” which means “renewed or altered”.
At the height of the Industrial Revolution, innovation played a subservient role to invention – “the action of creating or designing something that didn’t previously exist” (again, my italics). Between the Industrial Revolution and the early part of the twentieth century, engineers came up with virtually all the major inventions that, in one form or another, underpin our daily lives. Electricity generation and distribution, sanitation, the telephone, flight, the internal combustion engine, television and anesthetics are just a few examples.
The change of focus from invention to innovation happened around the mid-1930s (in part as a reaction to the Great Depression) when companies began to realize that they could get quicker returns refining proven technology to extend its commercial life rather than keep coming up with new ideas. It had dawned on companies that the problem with new ideas was that there was no guarantee of commercial payback.
WWII shook the industrial world out of its creative malaise. A world war is, of course, a disaster for mankind, but if there were any silver linings from the global conflict they came in the shape of antibiotics, jet engines, nuclear power and the fundamentals of computing architecture to name but a few. That momentum, in part maintained by the Cold War, lead to supersonic flight, digital computers, organ transplantation and, perhaps the crowning glory of man’s ingenuity so far, the Apollo program.
But since the late 1970s, according to some leading economists, the pace of invention has declined. They point to the fact that between 1900 and 1980, U.S. life expectancy increased from 49 to 74, but since then it has only crept up another four-and-a-bit years; flying across the Atlantic takes seven hours when Concorde used to do it in half that; the average speed of traffic in our congested cities has dropped to near that of the years when the horse and cart was the best way to get around, and American and European astronauts now struggle to make it into low Earth orbit and even then only by hitching a lift on the venerable Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Nowadays, argue those economists, we have 140 characters, selfie sticks and self-balancing scooters as the prime examples of our inventiveness. (An article in The Economist, while now a few years old, expands on this argument and makes interesting reading.)
It’s a harsh assessment but not without merit. Large technology companies are under increasing pressure to provide fast return on investment for venture capitalists and shareholders. Worse still, endless litigation over patents and a paucity of engineering talent, not to mention global economic stagnation, is hardly the best environment to nurture the inventiveness and creativity needed to come up with the next big thing.
But there is cause for optimism, actually plenty of cause for optimism. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives in western nations are starting to address the skills shortages in those countries. At the same time, China and other Asian countries are educating a generation of extremely talented engineers who are already making their mark in the smartphone, computer, aerospace and automotive sectors.
Better yet, the Maker Movement, fuelled by open source-software and -hardware, is providing a worldwide reservoir of creativity free from the restrictions of corporate bean counters and out of the grasp of patent trolls. By adding a splash of crowdfunding plus some online marketing, it’s possible for a small group of talented individuals to get products to a market that was the exclusive domain of powerful businesses only a decade or so ago.
Steven Keeping gained a BEng (Hons.) degree at Brighton University, U.K., before working in the electronics divisions of Eurotherm and BOC for seven years. He then joined Electronic Production magazine and subsequently spent 13 years in senior editorial and publishing roles on electronics manufacturing, test, and design titles including What’s New in Electronics and Australian Electronics Engineering for Trinity Mirror, CMP and RBI in the U.K. and Australia. In 2006, Steven became a freelance journalist specializing in electronics. He is based in Sydney.
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