Spark Salon Conversation Starters

March 6, 2012

Invention and Innovation: Barriers, Struggles, and Motivations

Amber Case is a cyborg anthropologist and the founder of Geoloqi.com
We should start with the story of gum. Gum chewing has been a bad habit for thousands of years, but the gum itself has gone through several big changes. In the U.S., we went from chewing tree resin and paraffin wax to chewing chicle in the late 1800s. Chicle made for a good chewing gum, and everything was fine until World War II, when the supply of chicle from South America was cut off. A substitute had to be found, so synthetic gum was developed, which was cheaper, better for blowing bubbles, and easier to mass produce. Until World War II, there hadn’t been pressure to improve chewing gum, so nobody did. It took a shortage to spur innovation.

We tend to misunderstand the innovation process. It's almost never about making something entirely new, but about making something easier to use, and with less friction, fewer steps, and less cost or pain. It's about mundane, incremental improvement to everyday processes, and making those experiences better.

This is in contrast to invention, which reaches for something entirely new. In many cases invention is spurred by frustration that a solution or capability doesn’t exist, and someone setting out to develop one.

That can be (and often is) a thankless, lonely task. The person who goes out on a limb to make something completely new and truly inventive often doesn’t reap success or profit, because there is no context for the invention. There’s no story for it to become a part of yet. Even if a use case exists in the mind of the inventor, it’s difficult to sell within the context of everyday life. Sometimes the idea is too abstract, or presented too early.

Take cassette tapes, for example. Magnetic tape was a Depression-era invention, but widespread adoption of the medium as a way to record and listen to music didn't catch on until 1962 with the Compact Cassette. The initial invention had the potential to revolutionize an industry, but only after subsequent decades of innovation would it realize its full potential.

On a smaller (but also much larger) scale, the inventor of the paper clip sold his invention for a mere 50 cents; he needed to cover his rent.

This happens all the time, and the first-moving inventor doesn’t always have the edge over subsequent innovators. The most obvious recent example is the explosion of tablet computing after years of false starts.

What factors determine the success of new technologies? Why does the market sometimes choose to reward inventors, and other times reward innovators? We could build a long list of adoption barriers, but there are a couple that don’t get talked about enough.

Persistent Architecture

Mouse inventor Doug Englebart probably did not expect the mouse to be a permanent or long-lasting way to manipulate or enter data into a computer. Rather, it was the first step towards a better input device—for instance, a direct input device like a touch screen. As we all know, the computer mouse has persisted. It was not until stylus-devices, laptop touch pads, and touch screen products became available that the computer mouse began to finally loosen its grip on the general public.

Computer mice and keyboards are perfect examples of persistent architectures. Other, more efficient input devices may exist, but in these instances, users have shown a tendency to stick with the same devices over decades of technological change and development. There are several reasons for this, one of which is the inherent friction in switching from one system of muscle memory to another. It’s also expensive and risky to invent, manufacture, and introduce new types of input devices and computer peripherals into the marketplace.

Persistent architectures prevent alternative systems from surviving, and can be way past their expiration date when they are finally displaced. On the other hand, persistent architectures can also provide a standard to build and collaborate on. For instance, PowerPoint and PDF documents can be read on almost all modern computers.

Natural Selection

When I walk down supermarket aisles, I don't see food or groceries, I see a fierce battle for control and dominance of the human brain. Some aisles show it better than others. My favorite is the toothbrush aisle, with its myriad choices and subtle differentiators—bristle length, colors, shapes of brushes. Nowhere can you see such rampant competition.

As the toothbrush aisle demonstrates, inventions and products are subject to natural selection, and products compete as animals would in the wild. The bird with the correct beak for the food wins out over the other birds in its environment. A toothbrush with a subtle edge can thrive. The market is the climate.

With this in mind, we can see subtle differences in how we would approach innovation versus invention. The key to innovation is simple: look at the ecosystem, and see what is being done poorly. Build a product or service that solves a need, or is more easily accessible. If there is a missing piece of a puzzle, build that piece. Then differentiate and brand so that you "stick."

Invention requires a different approach, because instead of looking for missing puzzle pieces, the inventor looks for whole new puzzles. Instead of finding holes or weaknesses in an ecosystem that the innovator can exploit, the inventor builds new ecosystems. But for both innovators and inventors, it has never been more important to tell a story. 

 

This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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