Re-Inventing Inventing

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Hedy lamarr 1940Hedy Lamarr (inventor) Tesla2 smallNikola Tesla (inventor)

What is now clear is that today’s lifestyles are so extravagant they are leaving an indelible imprint on the face of Nature. Some believe this process began with the invention of the atomic bomb. Others say it started ten thousand years earlier, with the advent of farming. Ironically, the name our species has given itself (Homo sapiens) means ‘wise human’.

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John Deere Tractor
Five million years ago, we were almost indistinguishable from our smart and playful chimpanzee cousins, so what made us become a ‘self-harming’ species? Somewhere in the last few hundred thousand years, humans became much more inventive. This is not, in itself, our fatal weakness. The main issue is that we have forgotten the purpose of in-vention.

In his 1903 play ‘Man and Superman’, George Bernard Shaw popularised Nietzsche’s claim that, with the requisite ‘will to power’ and a creative spirit, humanity could become a ‘superhuman’ species (‘Der Übermensch’,1883). Shaw paraphrased this vision by sug-gesting that, “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the un-reasonable man.”

Recent events have shown how hard it is for the majority to curb the unreasonableness of a few. However, if we were to challenge and re-invent the genre of invention itself, perhaps we could re-purpose it for collective survival, rather than for the unreasonable to gain unreasonable advantage. This means re-thinking invention to make it an opportuni-ty-creating activity that will share more outcomes with more beneficiaries.

Tesla car Tesla

Why do commuters spend several hours per day in their cars? And why does it seem log-ical to re-invent the automobile, rather than re-thinking our live-work balance? In the popular imagination, inventors are the lone eccentrics who become engrossed in prob-lems, one at a time. It is likely that our monkey brains evolved through physical actions, such as digging up minerals and shaping them into hand tools, weapons and, eventually, coins and digits.

This would explain why we fetishize individual ‘things’, rather than valuing relations, and why we solve problems by creating technical ‘gadgets’, rather than imagining better life-styles and joined-up systems. These habits are enshrined in the established genre of in-vention, which encourages design thinkers to look for the next ‘magic bullet’, cool ’widg-et’ or ‘killer app’.

Two thousand years ago, just after Archimedes celebrated his iconic ‘eureka moment’, the Roman poet Horace coined his much-quoted maxim “dare to know”. This was a call to society to seek wisdom through curiosity. However, as 21st century consumers, we are more likely to see it in terms of self-empowerment. This is because capitalism encour-ages us to act as individuals.

Our current descent into the Anthropocene is marked by business models that that cultivate narcissism, rather than altruism, or focus on data, rather than wisdom. When Apple launched its strapline “Think Different” in 1997 we all instinctively knew that we should take this personally. In short, it licensed us to savour our ‘eureka moments’. Why? Well, ‘because we’re worth it’.

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The business logic assures me that I am special enough to deserve to fly anywhere, any time I feel like it. Consumers are canny, so we admire Apple’s marketing of personal epiphany. But this is because we fell for the argument that disruptive innovation is vital for the economy. And we valorise inventors because we buy into the Enlightenment myth of genius as a rare gift bestowed only on special individuals.

Ironically, brain research has shown that the act of creation is a combinatorial process, rather than a solo event. Although a eureka moment may seem to occur in only one place, it requires at least two event zones. Actually, it does not matter whether these zones exist in the brain of a genius, within one team, or across the world.

This insight is the basis for our ongoing research into collective innovation. It is inspired by the fact that ecological systems thrive by sustaining a ‘diversity-of-diversities’. Re-inventing business models to accommodate this new reality will be challenging. It may even be a white-knuckle ride but, with luck, it will not be ‘rocket science’.

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