Innovation

IdeaFestival 2016: The 3 ways inventions are born, and why serendipity may be the secret sauce

The tech industry is always searching for the right conditions to create great inventions. New York Times science writer Pagan Kennedy explored the secret sauce in how new things come into being.

"We live in an amazing age for inventions and creativity," said science journalist Pagan Kennedy at IdeaFestival 2016. During her talk on Thursday at the annual conference in Louisville, Kentucky, Kennedy looked at how we "explore the unknown unknown"—what she believes is the true meaning of "serendipity."

Kennedy, author of Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World, began noticing patterns when she started interviewing people for the "Who Made That?" column in the New York Times Magazine, which looked at the history of the invention of everything from coffee lids to sliced bread.

Here are the three primary ways that inventions were born, according to Kennedy.

1. Hidden problem-finding

It may take creativity to see the problem itself, Kennedy said. Millions of people may suffer from a problem without anyone noticing, she said. The problem is something "we don't necessarily see—it's invisible to us."

The people who are in the best position to discover the problem that needs solving? Those who deal with it on a daily basis. "It's better if you experience a long-term, day-after-day problem," she said.

For example, at airports in the 1970s, there was a problem with luggage: Suitcases had no wheels.

As MIT economist Eric von Hippel said, "What we find is that functionally novel innovations—those for which a market is not yet defined—tend to come from users." Surfers invented skateboards. Bikers invented mountain bikes.

"It's because they have skin in the game," Kennedy said. "If the thing doesn't work, they suffer."

So who solved the suitcase problem? Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines 747 pilot.

2. Accidental invention

Another way to stumble into an invention? It's what Kennedy calls the "backwards" method.

In the 1980's NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson was making heat pumps that used water instead of freon, and began tinkering with nozzles for water.

When he hooked one up to the bathroom sink, "water came out with a cartoonish splash," Kennedy said, "and it was so much fun, he saw a toy in it." The result? Super Soaker.

SEE: New book 'Inventology' shows how today's inventors can tap big data, 3D printing, crowdfunding, and more

Many breakthroughs—50% of patented inventions—are arrived at through this "free jazz" method, Kennedy said. Some examples: The microwave oven, smoke detectors, Sweet'N Low. In fact, "I can't find a single artificial sweetener that didn't arise accidentally," Kennedy said, because it's hard to guess what will become sweet.

For instance, a lab worker, trying to make insecticide mishears his boss, thinking he is supposed to "taste," instead of "test" the formula. Result? Splenda.

3. The unknown unknown

One way to increase odds of stumbling into something new is to build tools so we can see things that used to be invisible, Kennedy said. The invention of telescopes and microscopes, for example, gave a window into whole new worlds that were previously invisible.

And new tools like machine learning, using big data, also help us come into discoveries.

But even with these tools, we still need to get beyond our own imaginations, Kennedy said. In 1754, novelist Horace Walpole was grappling with the question of why some people have a knack for detecting patterns. Inspired by a story, in which three princes from the Island of Serendip took off to explore the world, making discoveries of things they were not in the quest of, Walpole same up with a new term: Serendipity.

Today, Kennedy said, we tend to apply the word to dumb luck and romantic encounters. But she wishes we would restore its original meaning: A quality of mind, a way of seeing. Kennedy views this as an essential route to creativity.

"In journalism," Kennedy said, "we use the term 'gathering string' for the first stage of reporting, when we start collecting things that look like clues."

"String is all around us," said Kennedy, "hiding in plain sight."

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Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

About Hope Reese

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.

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