The invention is about ideas of organizing objects in a novel way in getting jobs done better, preferably by consuming less labor, material, and energy. As we know, invention is our core capability to make the quality of living standards increasingly better. Due to inventive ideas, we have been succeeding in creating increasing wealth from the same amount of resources. Hence, we do hail inventors. But who are inventors? What does it take to invent? When did they start inventing? Besides, how can we get inventive ideas? There are many such questions surrounding invention.
Often, we believe that invention started in the stone age. Of course, the idea of shaping stones as sharp tools was very useful to execute many jobs better. For example, hunting an animal by throwing stone tools was far more accessible than chasing and catching them. Hence, the use of the stone tool idea led to saving time, labor, energy, and material in meeting necessities. In retrospect, this is a beautiful example of what invention means.
Does it mean that our ancestors were not inventive prior to the stone age? Perhaps, they were as inventive as us. As Carl Marks noticed in ancient philosophical writings, unlike other living creatures, human beings have an inherent urge to recreate the world they live in. Human beings have a natural tendency of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, and practicing ideas in performing tasks better. Hence, they keep gaining knowledge about the surroundings and their means of addressing their purposes. Subsequently, they feed the knowledge and urgency to the creative process to generate ideas of reorganizing the object to have better means.
Inventing is human beings’ inherent ability:
Hence, perhaps, it’s pretty rational to state that invention started to happen from the very beginning of human existence on this planet. Furthermore, it’s also reasonable to state that every human being has inventive quality. Interestingly, they have been applying it every day to get jobs done by reorganizing objects around them.
Why did our ancestors not have similar living standards that we have today? Besides, why do we not regard all of us equally as inventors? First of all, all inventive ideas are not equally scalable. Often, scalability determines the merits of inventive ideas. The next aspect is that we are benefiting from the cumulative effects of all past inventions.
Examples of invention:
From stone tools to Television, there have been numerous inventions. Some of the commonly cited inventions are Radio, Television, Telephone, and Cell Phone. We have also invented the camera, the washing machine, and the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. In fact, to get each of our job done, we apply several inventions.
Invention begins in the primitive form:
Inventions are at the core of getting jobs done. Some of the inventions have diffused quite deep in society. For example, lightbulb or microwave ovens have penetrated every household in cities. Similarly, cell phones have diffused even rural areas of less developed countries. But irrespective of the greatness, each of those inventions appeared in primitive form, creating very little appeal in getting jobs done. They kept getting better out of a flow of additional ideas. Those additional ideas are equally or even more critical or complex than the initial invention. For example, Thomas Alva Edison invented the light bulb out of tinkering.
But its couple of hours of life span had a very limited capability in getting light in the darkness. To make it usable, Edison set up a corporate R&D center to create a flow of ideas for incremental advancement of the filament lamp. Subsequently, after 100 years, its reinvention LED bulb needed Nobel prize-winning scientific discovery. Similarly, microwave oven invention, as a 700 lb machine requiring 3KW energy, was a little help in heating food.
Scalability of inventions:
Scalability determines the utility or wealth creation capability of inventions. This is about making inventions increasingly better and cheaper in getting jobs done. For example, Heron of Alexandria, in the 1st century CE, invented a steam-powered turbine. But his invention did not scale due to a limited supply of knowledge and craftsmanship-based fabrication. Hence it did not power industrialization. But James Watt and others scaled it up due to the flow of scientific knowledge and replacement of craftsmanship with engineering.
Reinvention by changing technology core:
After a certain level of scale, invariably, all inventions stop growing further. Hence, society faces a barrier to keep producing increasing wealth. Fortunately, reinventions of them out of better technology core leads to another wave of growth, leading to further diffusion and wealth creation. For example, incandescent light bulbs waste more than 80 percent of energy despite high usefulness. Hence, its reinvention around LED has increased its ability to produce more wealth for society. Similarly, Television has been reinvented several times.
Creative destruction and disruptive innovation out of reinvention:
Inventions are supposed to be good for society. But their reinvention causes destruction to jobs, firms, and industries–giving birth to the concept of disruptive innovation. Hence, it creates stress on society. For example, the reinvention of the camera has caused destruction to employment and the film camera inventing company Eastman Kodak. Similarly, the reinvention of Television and the light bulb created similar effects.
Invention evolves and migrates:
Due to the profit-making opportunity in getting jobs done better, there has been competition in improving inventions. Due to this reason, more or less all inventions, like the cell phone and the light bulb, have been getting better. Like all other races, such a race also determines winners and losers. In the race of incrementally advancing the invention, followers, sometimes, take the lead. Of course, inventors use patents to create a moat, but it also fails to stop the invasion of a far better performer. Hence, IBM lost its lead in hard disk invention to late entrant Toshiba.
Furthermore, reinvention out of the change of technology core avoids the patent barrier; sometimes, it catches inventors off guard. As a result, the race of evolution of invention through incremental progression and reinvention leads to the migration of invention across the boundaries of firms and nations. For this reason, the commercialization epicenter of the light bulb or Television invention, among others, has migrated from the USA to Japan.
Getting inventive ideas:
Upon knowing what the invention is, the next question is how to get an inventive idea? Does it mean that someone should be a creative genius to come up with inventive ideas? Perhaps, No. As invention requires the feeding of urgency and knowledge to the natural creative ability, everybody can develop inventive ideas. Maybe, many of us come up with several inventive ideas every day to perform jobs with a bit of reorganization. By why don’t we hail them? Because, despite their case-specific usefulness, these micro inventions are not the seed to gather snowball effect out of addition of a flow of ideas.
To succeed in getting inventive ideas, our challenge is to get ideas in helping to perform our jobs better, at a profit, which can grow out of the flow of ideas. It happens to be that the focus on the 09 areas has a good chance of getting inventive ideas. These nine areas are (i) solving grassroots problems with ideas, (ii) reinvention, (iii) leveraging scientific knowledge, (iv) focusing on getting jobs done with empathy, (v) ideas for process improvement, (vi) ideas for incremental ideas for redesign, (vii) ideas for design for manufacturing, (viii) paying attention to accidental observation, and (ix) exploring ideas for sustaining innovation in the market.
Empathy, knowledge, winning trait, and passion for perfection to be an inventor:
For having inventive ideas, we should have strong empathy to silently observe the pains fellow human beings have been experiencing in performing jobs. This finding develops the urgency. To move forward, we should have knowledge and technology to support the idea generation for addressing the pain points. Often such exercise does not easily lead to inventive ideas for addressing pains satisfactorily. It demands a long-term journey of systematically finding a flow of ideas to keep adding momentum in reaching the practical solution to ease the pains of customers. Hence, we need a winning trait and a passion for perfection. These four virtues should have an excellent combination to keep progressing in having the idea that works profitably to solve customers’ problems.
Invention dynamics and market economy:
For leveraging ideas in creating wealth and driving prosperity, capitalism adopted the principles of ensuring profit-making competition out of ideas. In addition to possession of private capital, giving patent rights was one of the major policy decisions for creating economic incentives out of ideas. Hence the race started in inventing and commercializing ideas. Governments’ role in giving awards and also grants was vital for seeding economic value creation out of ideas. For example, the France Government’s prize money of 50,000 francs (approx. US$280,000 in current dollars) to Mr. Bell for the invention of the telephone seeded the formation of Volta Laboratory. Subsequently, it became the famous Bell Labs.
Among all other factors, freedom of competition to profit from ideas for personal gain has been a mighty force of inventions and evolution. However, the race of advancing ideas, making inventions better and cheaper, leads to price-setting capability—leading to monopolization. Consequentially, the innovation slows down, leading to weakening the market economy’s capability of producing wealth out of inventive ideas. Although reinvention offers the opportunity of eroding the monopoly’s paw, current startup practice and monopoly’s strategy of buying potential threats is weakening this potential. Hence, it’s time to ponder the next move to intensify competition in creating wealth out of inventive ideas.