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Quick Summary: “Inventology” is a 2016 book by Pagan Kennedy which deals with five important aspects of the process of invention: the nature of problem finding, the role of serendipity in the creative process of discovery, the strategy of prophecy and futuristic thinking, the necessity of connecting unusual ideas together, and the challenges of empowerment.
Who Should Read “Inventology”? And Why?
If you want to learn what is it that makes an inventor a bit different from the other people or you want to become one, then Inventology is the right book for you.
It is a great addition to a budding field of study – and inventology is a great name for it – which includes books like When, Mapping Innovation, The Idea Factory, How We Got to Now, The Four Lenses of Innovation, and even Monetizing Innovation.
If you like this book, be sure to check the others as well.
As its subtitle aptly suggests, Inventology is a “delightful account” of how we dream up things that change the world; hence the neologism from the title which can be roughly translated as “the science of inventions.”
Pagan Kennedy’s book is divided into five parts: “Problem Finding,” “Discovery,” “Prophecy,” “Connecting” and “Empowerment,” each of which contains between two and four chapters.
Not all of the titles of the sections below mirror the titles of the chapters in Inventology – neither we have the time and space to cover them all.
However – and as always – we did cover what we found most interesting and most engaging.
Part I: Problem Finding
Part I of Inventology delves into problem finding.
“We will look at how creative people,” the author writes, “use their frustration as a doorway into the imagination.”
“According to an old saw,” she goes on, “necessity is the mother of invention; that’s certainly true, but the adage is annoyingly vague. What kind of necessity works best to help reveal the outlines of a hidden problem? Why do some frustrations lead to a big idea, while most don’t? And can we learn from someone else’s pain?”
Let’s find answers to these questions.
The Wheeled Suitcase
Imagine having to carry your 32kg luggage by hand; even more – imagine having to carry two 32kg suitcases in the same manner?
Seems exhausting to even think about it, doesn’t it?
Well, most probably, your parents and grandparents had to do exactly that!
Even though such an important part of the lives of so many regular travelers of the world, wheeled suitcases are a pretty recent invention.
The first suitcase designed for airports is not even half a century old and dates back to 1970, when Bernard D. Sadow, a vice president at a luggage company had to schlepp two heavy suitcases to an airport.
And then he noticed a workman pushing a machine on a dolly.
Cue a lightbulb moment: after devising a prototype or two, very soon Sadow patented a suitcase that sat squarely on rollers, with a flexible strap attached to it.
Carrying this suitcase was pretty much similar like walking your dog: you pulled it behind on a leash, but you also had to be careful not to pull it too hard – otherwise you might end up hitting yourself.
Enter Robert Plath, an airline pilot.
About a decade after Sadow’s invention, he introduced quite a few improvements which made the wheeled suitcase the beloved commodity that is today.
In retrospect, one is bound to ask himself/herself a question: why didn’t Sadow think of these improvements?
The answer, writes Pagan Kennedy, is quite simple.
For Bernard Sadow – being a businessman on vacation – the wheeled suitcase was a “short-term form of necessity.”
However, Plath, by virtue of his job, “Plath was already living in the future, when flying would become a commonplace misery.”
That’s why he was motivated to think deeply about this problem: he had to deal with it on a daily basis.
Everyone’s an Inventor
As we have already reminded you, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith uses a famous pin factory study to suggest that “division of labor is an incredibly effective way to achieve higher efficiency in the production process.”
Smith goes a step further: in a pin factory where one man does one job only, he says, each laborer becomes an expert in a small field, and this may eventually result in him finding out “easier and readier methods of performing” his job.
In other words, according to Adam Smith, in addition to increasing productivity, specialization also turns all workmen into inventors.
And he even offers an example.
“For instance,” relates Kennedy, “he noticed a boy who was supposed to pump a lever in time with a piston. This relentless, grinding task inspired the boy to figure out an ingenious workaround: he tied a string between the lever and a moving part elsewhere on the machine. Now the machine itself pulled the lever for him. After automating his job, the boy skipped off to play with friends.”
Many years later – i.e., about a decade ago – the American economist Eric von Hippel put this otherwise: “I’ve learned personally that you can get a graduate student to do a lot of things, but you can’t get them to do it twenty thousand times in a row, [because] they will start to invent.”
In other words, nobody likes to do mechanical things forever; and, after a certain number of hours, he/she turns into a Lead User, an inventor out of frustration.
This is the reason why mountain bikes were invented by bike hobbyists who had to ride over boulders and tree stumps in the woods.
Lead User Theory
Since he had worked both as an engineer and as an academic, Ernst Hippel used his experiences from his previous field to devise a now-famous academic theory on the genesis of lead users.
Theoretically, anyone who encounters a frustrating problem lacking an off-the-shelf solution can become one; however, the most valuable kind of frustration seems to be the one which has these three components:
#1. It plays out over a long period of time, thus inspiring more and better solutions;
#2. It reveals a hidden problem that is difficult to detect;
#3. It forecasts a problem that will affect thousands or millions of people in the future.
Let us sum up this for you:
Want to become an inventor?
Just start doing something many people are doing but is considered boring – over and over again; after some time, you’d grow tired of doing that; and that’s when you’ll suddenly start thinking like an inventor.
Part II: Discovery
If Part I deals with problem finding and people who have a deep understanding of a problem, Part II turns its attention to inventors who operate in exactly the opposite manner.
Namely, people who “stumble across a ‘preexisting solution,’ and then they work backward to figure out how to match it to a need.”
Let’s find out more about the role of serendipity in the creative process.
They say that while the unsuccessful ones look for excuses and consider themselves unlucky, the successful ones are capable of making their own luck.
But is it true?
Well, according to quite a few experiments, it isn’t wrong.
For example, in the 1990s, a British psychology professor by the name of Richard Wiseman “began to suspect that people who feel “lucky” tend to be especially observant—and that their ability to scan their surroundings makes it easier for them to notice useful clues in their environment.”
To test out his theory, he devised a simple experiment.
First, he gathered two groups of people: some who considered themselves lucky and blessed, and others cursed and unlucky. Then he gave them a newspaper asking them to count the number of photographs inside.
On the second page, there was a small note saying: “Stop counting – there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”
Unsurprisingly, the blessed ones noticed this message much more often than the cursed ones.
A lucky coincidence?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would beg to differ.
In a famous experiment, he gathered a group of art students and asked them to pick out and draw objects from a previously set-up room.
One group treaded the easier path: they started drawing immediately, the first thing they noticed; the other group took time and started drawing only after carefully examining the objects in the room.
Seven years later, the former were struggling to meet ends, and most of the latter became professional artists.
Back in the 1990s, Sanda Erdelez devised a name for the more observant, lucky ones.
She named them the Super-Encounterers.
Their main trait: they relish the search, boasting “channels for information perception that are more sensitive than the channels of other[s].”
Are you one of them?
Super-Encounterers make their own luck by searching and, thus, noticing more things than other people.
If you read that sentence carefully and didn’t skip the title of this section, you already know something scientists just discovered: an inventor with a proper algorithm is a better inventor than a Super-Encounterer or a Lead User.
Well, two words:
It means exactly what you think it means: millions and billions of articles systemized in such a manner that makes them searchable within days – or even hours.
Hence, one should not be surprised by a new breed of inventors currently active in laboratories and universities worldwide: the bioinformaticians.
These people, in the words of Kennedy, “hope to find a way to speed up and engineer their luck by using computers to scan the results of thousands of past experiments in order to detect unexpected connections.”
Has it worked?
Of course it has!
Consider a drug called imipramine, an antidepressant around for more than half a century.
Using big-data-mining algorithms, Atul Butte – a biomedical researcher and entrepreneur who heads up the University of California San Francisco’s Institute for Computational Health Sciences – discovered a pattern which suggested that imipramine could be effective in fighting small-cell lung cancer.
A few experiments later, and this was published as a fact in the journal Cancer Discovery.
Now, it’s not like someone else couldn’t have stumbled upon this patter while reading a few of these articles; however, deliberate focus, basically, works as an instigator of serendipity.
Which means that bioinformaticians are literally creating their own luck.
Building an Empire Out of Nothing
“Nothing will come out of nothing,” wrote Shakespeare in King Lear at the beginning of the 17th century.
“You don’t say!” – replied the little-known Lawrence Herbert in the 1960s.
A recent Hofstra University graduate, in 1956, Herbert was hired by the brothers Morris and Jesse Levine at their advertising company as a part-time employee.
Since he was put in charge of the ink and printing division – and he knew a bit of chemistry – Herbert noticed something devastating.
Namely, because “every designer had about a half a dozen color books in his drawer” and because “every ink company used different sets of pigments which react differently under different lights,” he couldn’t be sure what color he would get when sending out orders for ink.
So, he thought of a brilliant solution: what if, he began to imagine, all printers and ink makers could speak a universal language?
Under this scheme, he remembers, “if somebody in New York wanted something printed in Tokyo, they would just simply open up the book and say, ‘Give me Pantone 123.’”
And be sure that this color (a daffodil yellow) would look exactly like the one ordered.
So, Herbert created a sample page to introduce this system to other ink makers and after a bunch of “schmoozing, trading favors, and building up alliances with graphic designers and ink companies,” he devised the Pantone Matching System.
Eventually, he bought out the debt of the company he was working for and in a few decades became a multimillionaire.
Now let’s go down a bit to make Kennedy’s point.
What Herbert started with was absolutely nothing but an idea: no money, no connections, no experience.
And because of him, we have Pantone today.
You really think you have an excuse not to do something with your life?
Part III: Prophecy
Prophecy and futuristic thinking – as you’ll see in a moment – play a big part in the process of inventing things.
That’s why Part III explores “invention as it relates to prediction, prophecy, and science-fiction dreams.”
More precisely: “What sorts of people first imagine that future? How do they do it? And how do they communicate their vision to the rest of us?”
The Wayne Gretzky Game
Wayne Gretzky is the Michael Jordan of hockey; well, even more than that: there are basically no LeBrons or Kobes in hockey and with the exception of a “What-If-Lemieux,” nobody comes even close to Gretzky.
He is universally acclaimed as the greatest hockey player ever.
You know why?
Because he was able to anticipate, to predict the movement of the puck better than the rest, i.e., because he saw a second more into the future than those around him.
Great inventors share this capability.
In his Auguries of Innocence, William Blake wrote that “what is now proved was once only imagined,” and, that’s the essence of the so-called Wayne Gretzky Game.
Want to invent something people would use in the future?
Well, start off by imagining the future. If you could see, for example, flying cars there, then there is a good reason you should start working on developing one.
That’s exactly what happened with a bunch of people in the 1970s: they were able to see a personal computer in everyone’s home when barely few had even seen one.
Yup, we’re talking about a story we’ve already recounted in our summaries: Douglas Engelbart’s “mother of all demos.”
Now, if you’ve read our summary of Mapping Innovation, you already know full well that it was a Vannevar Bush essay that inspired Engelbart that inspired Microsoft and Apple.
What if that essay not only imagined but also instigated the future?
It is more than possible.
Just think of the more-than-famous Moore’s Law, according to which computing power doubles every year and a half.
According to its very postulator, even though originally an observation, it has turned into a directive: people in the industry do not want to fall behind it.
Thus, Gordon Moore has both predicted and shaped the future.
The Mind’s R&D Lab
Unfortunately, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla – aka the man who brought us the 21st century –didn’t have that much luck in his life: he died, quite poor, alone and forgotten, in a hotel room in New York in January 1943.
Fortunately, at least since the 1990s, he has not only been lifted from obscurity but turned into the archetypal brilliant scientist ahead of his time and capable of devising inventions basically at will.
And for a reason: Tesla was indeed capable of doing this, his laboratory being more mental than an actual one.
“Every night (and sometimes during the day), when alone, I would start on my journeys – see new places, cities, and countries –live there, meet people and make friendships and acquaintances,” he wrote later in his life.
“This I did constantly until I was about seventeen when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings, or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind. Thus, I have been led unconsciously to evolve what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas.”
“Before I put a sketch on paper,” Tesla concludes, “the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind, I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device.”
In a way, that’s exactly what you should start doing right away – don’t make us requote William Blake here as well.
However, be careful not to go overboard and become a Robert Desnos, a French Surrealist poet who, whenever asleep, put a sign before his door stating that “the Poet is working;” how would we know if you don’t put that on paper, Robert?
Part IV: Connecting
“In Part IV of this book,” writes Kennedy, “we will look at how invention benefits from open systems, and specifically from the people who thrive in a connected world. Breakthroughs often happen when we allow unlikely collaborators and odd bedfellows to share our problems, or when we leap across boundaries.”
Consider, for example, John Harrison, an 18th-century British carpenter, and clockmaker.
In 1714, seven years after the disastrous Scilly shipwreck which claimed the lives of thousands because of bad naval navigation, members of British Parliament promised to award a fortune ($3 million in today’s dollars) to one capable of improving it.
John Harrison was the guy who claimed the prize, producing a marine clock accurate down to the second. This clock allowed sailors “to calculate longitude by comparing the precise clock readings with the position of the stars and the sun; it was time, as much as celestial maps, that turned out to be key to solving the problem.”
Why was the humble John Harrison – of all people – capable of making such a breakthrough?
Simply put, because he was able to bring together knowledge from more than one relevant field: he was able to both craft gears and springs with precision, but he was also able to connect his knowledge of timekeeping with navigation.
As Kennedy says, there “are certain people who – by luck, design, or some quirk of personality – are able to bring together knowledge from several fields. They inhabit the cracks and interstices between different disciplines.”
And, ultimately, they are capable of making leaps others can’t even imagine.
Part V: Empowerment
Part V of Inventology explores “the challenges of empowerment.”
“It takes enormous courage to claim a problem,” Kennedy writes. “When you dare to tackle a big question, you may face ridicule, rejection, and opposition. So how do you grant yourself permission to invent?”
Look no further than the Soviet engineer, inventor, and scientist Genrich Altshuller.
He was a brilliant young man – possibly even just too brilliant for his own sake under a totalitarian regime.
An SF enthusiast – later in life, he basically earned his living writing science fiction novels in collaboration with his wife – Altshuller dreamt of a world far different than the one haunted by Stalin’s Great Purge.
He dreamt of a world where everyone can be an inventor.
So, after noticing the drop in inventions in USSR, soon after the Second World War, together with his friend Raphael Shapiro, he wrote a letter to Stalin in which he advocated such a form of education.
Abbreviated as TRIZ, this new educative practice is still described as “a problem-solving, analysis and forecasting tool derived from the study of patterns of invention in the global patent literature.”
Questioning Stalin’s method was never a great idea, and it was especially not so in 1950. So, Altshuller and Shapiro ended up in a labor camp.
Did this make him give up his dreams?
On the contrary: it merely fueled him to work more and more.
After he was freed by Khrushchev three years later, Altshuller continued reviewing patents to develop several still-studied and used concepts in innovation: the ideality of a system, technical contradictions, and contradiction matrix and the 40 principles of TRIZ, the general principles of invention.
You’d think he died a rich man, wouldn’t you?
Guess again: he didn’t want any money.
Altshuller just wanted a better world for everybody.
Key Lessons from “Inventology”
1. Everyone Can Become a Lead User and an Inventor
2. Play the Wayne Gretzky Game (It’s Not Hockey) and Become an Inventor
3. Connect Two Disparate Fields of Endeavor to See the World Differently
Everyone Can Become a Lead User and an Inventor
Adam Smith was the first to notice that regular laborers can become inventors when they specialize enough doing a certain task.
Centuries after him, Ernst von Hippel devised the lead user theory to explain how this came to be.
Simply put, if a job can be automated and breeds frustration in the one who’s tasked doing it, then, after a certain number of repetitions (say, 20,000), the worker starts thinking like an inventor.
In other words, he starts thinking of ways to ease his burden.
And isn’t that exactly what inventors do?
Play the Wayne Gretzky Game (It’s Not Hockey) and Become an Inventor
Wayne Gretzky is widely considered the greatest hockey player in history for a reason: he was able to anticipate and predict the movement of a puck much better than anyone else.
Well, most inventors are just like that: they are able to predict the future much better than us, regular Joes.
That’s what the Wayne Gretzky Game is all about.
Think of it this way: problem solving, by definition, deals with obvious things, i.e., problems which are a manifestation of the current worldview.
In the Wayne Gretzky Game, you imagine the world few decades in the future, and then you figure out the technology “destined to exist, based on what you’d predicted about the evolution of machines and about human needs and desires.”
And then it’s time for sketches, videos, and stories about the technology.
In other words, using the Wayne Gretzky Game, you do not deal with solving current problems but envisioning and solving the problems of the future.
Isn’t that better?
Connect Two Disparate Fields of Endeavor to See the World Differently
A guy named John Harrison became an instant millionaire at the beginning of the 18th century because he was not only a carpenter and a clockmaker, but also knew something about naval navigation.
This allowed him to build a marine clock accurate down to the second and claim a hefty prize for the invention from the British Parliament.
Why was he able to come up with one?
Simply put: “by luck, design, or some quirk of personality,” he fused together knowledge from different disciplines.
Think of it this way: how many people there were in the 18th century capable of crafting clocks and knowing a thing or two about naval navigation?
Now, watch this TED Talk.
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Inventology QuotesInventors must be able to do more than just collect feedback; they also have to be able to listen to criticism and change course when they discover that they’re solving the wrong problem. Click To Tweet His idea emerged from a serendipitous event. He didn’t go looking for the nozzle. Instead, it was as if the nozzle found him. This process is so common that we have a name for it: accidental invention. Click To Tweet Inventing, at its best, can be a form of civic engagement. When we notice a problem in the designed environment, we have an obligation to speak out and participate in improving it. Click To Tweet Some of the greatest discoveries involve a Seinfeld-ian paradox: enormous value hides in the realm that most people call ‘nothing.’ Click To Tweet Тhe process of invention is a path to something even greater: the development of an independent mind. Click To Tweet
Inventology is a great, great book.
“A delightful account of how inventors do what they do,” (Kirkus Review) the book “offers a new perspective into the process of invention that will inform and illuminate.” (Publishers Weekly)
And it is well-written, nicely structured, and engaging from cover to cover.