With the internet age and its endless possibilities in the realms of publishing, communication, and collaboration, opportunities have never been so widely accessible for creators. But how has our new digital world affected the pathways to invention? In Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World, out today, journalist Pagan Kennedy offers a fresh take on how the digital era has upended the traditional pathways for creation.
When Kennedy began writing about inventors for The New York Times, she soon "would marvel at how few of the people were professional inventors, designers, in corporate innovation labs." It led her to explore what it really takes to invent. Drawing from that experience, Kennedy debunks common misconceptions about how great inventions are born, explores situations that have led to invention, and highlights gender disparity in the world of invention. TechRepublic talked to Kennedy about the big takeaways she learned during the writing process, and the relationship between tech and invention.
Inventions come from the inside
In looking at common threads between inventors, Kennedy discovered that many inventions were made by people who had something at stake in their creation. "If you look at the big important surgical tools and medical devices that have really changed medicine and saved the most the lives, most were invented by surgeons and doctors," she said. Of course, that seems to make sense. But it translates into so many other areas as well. "So much comes through the bottom up," she said. "They understand this problem or even identify a problem that none of the rest of us see yet." This also helps debunk the notion of the "eureka!" moment. In a survey of thousands of inventors, almost half said that they arrived at their idea serendipitously. Still, "even when inventing involves serendipity, it's a long and arduous process," said Kennedy. "When someone stumbles across a new possibility, it can take years to figure out how to apply it; and often the inventor has to make many "sub-discoveries" to make the idea work."
Kennedy wondered: "If many of our blockbuster drugs were discovered serendipitously, then is it possible to 'speed up' and 'engineer' serendipity in order to find even more drugs?" She began exploring how algorithms could be used to search through data and identify patterns "that would lead us to life-saving medications." Some researchers Kennedy interviewed are using big data to do this already, although others "believe that the big data method will never be able to match 'artisanal' drug development."
Kennedy said that 3D printing's effect on inventing has been huge, in large part because of the way it's changed the prototyping system. "In the old days, with the tool and die system, you'd make a model of the part you want and send it to craft people at the factory, who would then have to make like a 3D model of what you blueprinted." They'd send it back to the inventor, who would return it with feedback, and the entire process could take months.
Today, not only can creators come up with their own 3D models, but advances in 3D printing mean that the models themselves are often good enough for their purposes—no manufacturing required. And 3D printing is leading us into "the era of customization" as well, making it easier to craft specific parts in a way that mass manufacturing doesn't allow.
The power of collaboration
With crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter and Indiegogo lowering the barriers for individuals to solicit money—and, more importantly, feedback—on their ideas, "everything about market research has been reversed," wrote Kennedy. Crowdfunding, she said, allows inventors to "connect directly to the people who might be interested in whatever you're making," allowing for input and helping come up with ideas. "It's a really different way of thinking about how we invent things." And once money has been raised, individuals take on the role of "small shops," some with $100,000 in backing, and are able to put pressure on the manufacturing system to create their product.
It's not to say that there are no issues with Kickstarter. For instance, it can often be difficult to vet ideas, and sometimes inventions are coming from people with little background in a given area. Kennedy acknowledged that it's still "the Wild West" in crowdfunding land. Still, the power of the group to collaborate is a huge win for inventors.
Once Kennedy began digging into the research, she discovered how stark the gender gap is for inventors. Of patented inventors, she said, over 90% are still men. "The gender gap is more extreme than almost any other gender gap you can think about," she said. "And the implications are really disturbing. It means that almost everything is designed around male bodies." And while much of the disparity likely results from hidden barriers, Kennedy discovered some not-so-subtle biases as well. Many female inventors she spoke to described having ideas stolen from underneath them. "They described it like a Mad Men era," Kennedy said.
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Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.