January 20, 2016

Laser Lightbulb

Shining a laser on a lightbulb. Credit: Veronica Aguilar / Flickr Creative Commons

How many times have you looked at a something and said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” From Venmo to tennis ball hoppers, we’re surrounded by objects and ideas that seem obvious. Or at least obvious in hindsight.

Pagan Kennedy, columnist and author of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World,” doesn’t subscribe to the idea that necessity is the mother of invention. Otherwise, lots of our inventions would have come sooner.

“We all face situations every day that have some sort of necessity to them. So most necessities are not the mother of invention. But a certain kind of necessity is,” says Kennedy.

That kind of necessity is what inspires those, “why didn’t I…” moments.

And often it takes someone who faces a problem every day – who’s more frustrated than the average person – to devise an ingenious solution.

“You’re not going to wait for someone else to solve it,” says Kennedy. “And you’re not going to settle for a half-solution.”

Eric Von Hippel, professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, agrees: “It has to do with how society views innovation.” Historically, we think of producers, or companies, as innovators. But, says Von Hippel, it’s actually users that are the true innovators.

A company like GE has two weaknesses: profit and, surprisingly, manpower. Producers are worried about who’s going to buy their products, whereas users are only conscious of their own need. And though the R and D department at GE might have some extremely innovative folks, they’re competing with an entire world of innovators. “Users are the pioneers,” insists Von Hippel.

And these days, it’s getting even easier for users to take control.

The process of invention itself is being reinvented. In the past, inventors would need the resources of a large company to create a prototype or bring a product to a factory. Now, people can use crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter and directly contract with factories around the world.

There are also a vast number of innovations from users who don’t expect, or necessarily want, to make money. This growing culture of idea-sharing and open-source innovation bypasses the traditional model of corporations. 

Both von Hippel and Kennedy believe that we’re moving towards a system that’s far less dependent on corporate innovation. Users are transitioning from passive buyers to creators, and companies are struggling to keep up.

Pagan Kennedy, Sci and Tech, Eric von Hippel, invention

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