One of Einstein’s Lessons: Innovation–It’s Not Just for Breakfast Any More
By Dr. David Pensak
When I was a boy growing up in Princeton, my parents often had one of their friends come over for dinner – Albert Einstein. In this, and future articles, I will tell you what he tried to teach me (he was big on nurturing the imagination of children, probably because he considered himself “just very curious”). I certainly didn’t learn the significance of what he was saying at the time (I was just 8 years old when he died), but looking back, there are clear tracks that he left which guided me through a most interesting and successful career.
Several other distinguished scientists also voiced their opinions on how to help a child grow up to be an innovator and an inventor. They, of course, get the credit for the things I did well, I reserve all the blame for myself. Each article will contain some “truffles” of innovation. When mixed with the “ingredients” each of you provides, there will be some satisfying outcomes (and some not so satisfying). Your desire to become more innovative and the degree of understanding of your unique circumstances will be the fuel with which to “light your fire”.
Innovation is a heavily overused word. A Google search turns up millions of hits. I’m hard put to find a company that does not use the word somewhere in their mission statement or their marketing literature. Rather than go into an extensive debate about the “true” meaning, lets just say it is either finding a new solution to an old problem or an old solution to a new problem (or something in between). Regardless of meaning, there is an urgent need for companies and organizations to find ways to grow, diversify, increase profitability, address environmental concerns and respond to competitive pressures.
Innovation comes from three sources, a need, dissatisfaction, or a curiosity. By need, I refer to something on which you life actually depends (unless you are a teenager in which case the word “want” becomes inextricably intertwined with the assertion of demise being imminent of a certain pair of athletic shoes is not immediately forthcoming. A dissatisfaction is something that works, but could be done better (cheaper, faster, more effectively, etc.). Having worn Keds sneakers since I was in middle school. I am less than supportive of anything more than a claim that Air Jordans might have slightly better traction on a wet gymnasium floor. The choices when I was growing up were did I want white or black. Now there are hundreds of different styles, colors, etc. During my formative years I did see some cartoon or comic book characters that were able to climb up vertical walls with no external support. Was I curious about how they did that, absolutely I was. Many hours were spent experimenting in my father’s shop trying to make the soles of my sneakers hold tight to a wall but release at a moment’s notice.
Nature had thousands of years to develop the mechanism by which a gecko lizard could walk along vertical walls or even hang from the ceiling. Since I was trying to do this so I could play a part in our school play, I had days, not millennia. Fortunately my only constraint was the set which was placed on the stage. This reduced the problem from an enormous general case to a narrow one that I could solve. Behind the section of the wall where I was going to walk up, I put a sheet of 12-gauge steel. Into the soles of my sneakers I placed some strong electromagnets and some strong permanent magnets. With hidden switches in my pockets I could turn the electromagnets on or off when I needed to take a step.
It was nowhere near what Hollywood would have done, but for a fourth grade school play it was magical. This example has hopefully conveyed several key points – you need to be careful about your problem definition, you need to be able to define success (including finances, time duration, etc.), and you don’t have to be a corporate executive or have a Ph.D. to be innovative.
The other side of the chronological coin is every bit as important. Our country has hundreds of thousands, if not millions of retirees (some voluntary, some not) who have ideas in one or more of the three channels. There are many possible reasons why they did not pursue them while they were employed but all that matters now is that we find a way to let them pursue their dreams. This is where business and government can come together to make things happen at minimal expense. All the silver haired innovators want is a chance. By that I mean access to physical facilities where they could build prototypes of their dream machine and access to relevant journals and databases on the internet. If you are currently employed, you probably already have the latter but if you are not working – and you have time to research and think – you cannot get the data even if you are prepared to pay thousands of dollars out of your own pocket. This is a soluble problem however. The University of Delaware has a program called Life Long Learning. For a very modest fee (I think under $200/semester) you can take courses at the University and have access to the library (please note that a university library will have enormously larger collections than a local public library). Over the past 5 years I have probably read 1000 articles from electronic journals. If I had to purchase each one individually that would have cost me at least $35,000. For less than $2000 I was able to take courses and see the journal articles.
Many of our “senior” citizens have skills and experience that simply are not taught anywhere. These are the skills that keep the United States the technology leader in the world. We have less than 10 years to harvest this wisdom from them. If we do not rise to the challenge, other countries will go running past us and never look back.
In future articles we will consider where ideas really come from (and no, there is no idea stork), how to refine them to where they solve enough problems for enough people to be economically viable, how to get intellectual property protection and how to negotiate contractual relationships where everyone wins.