innovation, air and another reason to love coffee

Submitted by jpamental on
Topics:  innovation

I was invited to a book talk given by Steven Johnson about his latest work, The Invention of Air. This is the story of Joseph Priestly and the contributions he made in 'natural philosophy', religion and politics during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I picked up the book and was pretty intrigued with the first chapter and went to the talk. I have to say it was one of the best events I've attended recently. Having had some captive audience reading time (read: unexpected trip with a several hour flight-time each way), I read through it virtually non-stop. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It got me thinking quite a bit about invention and innovation, and how they differ - both in definition and perception. The rest of the flight home was spent trying to untangle that dialogue. The crucial point is that not only is innovation important to growth, it's substantially more attainable than invention.

Innovation is defined as making changes to something established by introducing new methods, ideas or products. This can be seen as contextual connections: not a new idea in a vacuum, but rather connecting existing ideas or concepts in new, transformative or disruptive ways. Invention, on the other hand is defined as creating or designing something that did not previously exist. Fundamentally those are quite different, and one could argue require quite different sensibilities. An invention may be truly innovative, but by definition, many innovations are not strictly speaking inventions. The bar is set differently for those two notions. One tricky bit is that one or the other concept may not be readily apparent in an idea that comes forth; it may require, as Johnson points out, the 'long lens' of historical hindsight to bring the interconnection points of an innovation to light.

This actually brings up an interesting point of discussion about the title of Johnson's book: was Priestly's seminal contribution to 'natural philosophy' invention or innovation? He is credited with (as the title would indicate) the 'Invention of Air' - the discovery of the two parts of air, and how plants and animals and air interact. But on what side of the metaphorical fence does this fall? Johnson himself points out that Priestly was a consummate tinkerer - taking a somewhat random and chaotic approach to his work. He nibbled around the edges of the problem for years, taking in advice from many sources, building upon the work of many others before making his amazing discovery. His experiments connected the dots between the supply of oxygen in the air, a noxious other component of that air, and how plants served as the consumer of the latter and producer of the former. Truly innovative to be sure - but is it invention? Johnson here again makes it clear that many of these ideas had been developed previously by others - but that it was Priestly who put them together in new and different ways until he hit on those particular combinations.

Now first let me be clear - I make the point in no way to take away from the book, or to reduce the value of one concept or elevate the other. The question is meant simply to further the discussion, and get us all as designers - as thinkers - to realize that while it may be a rare thing to invent something truly useful and unique, the possibilities for innovation are all around us and nearly infinite. We simply have to train ourselves to rise above our often-siloed view of the world and our work. We need to take that long lens and train it on the world around us, not just look back to history. By taking in our landscape at that higher level we open our eyes to a whole new realm of possibilities. Priestly was quite a varied man, with depth of knowledge and interest in religion, science, politics and more. By drawing upon all those skills and reservoirs of knowledge he was able to find new connections that ran across interests and disciplines. That parallel in today's world is oft-times hard to find. Individuals with broad knowledge of their industry or organization are fewer and farther between. Those whose broad knowledge also runs deep in key areas are an even rarer breed.

Despite this relative rarity, the ability for any of us to innovate exists every day, so long as we're open to seeing its possibility. It may be more likely to occur if you happen to be one of those rare birds mentioned above, but necessity has likely been mother to far more innovations than inventions over the years simply based on the needs of those performing the tasks required of them.

What is exciting today is the trend in our society to recognize the importance of innovation and for companies and government organizations beginning to institutionalize that job description in a position that can be held - and at a high enough level to yield true benefits. There aren't many yet, but it's enough to see a trend, and an exciting one at that. The current state of our economy demands that we look at things in new ways or we will be doomed to repeat the mistakes that landed us here in the first place.

Now for the coffee connection - and this may well be one of the most coveted discoveries in the book (I jest - mostly...). The Age of Enlightenment so happens to coincide with the rise of the coffee house in London and elsewhere. As a replacement for the practice of drinking beer with breakfast due to the lack of clean drinking water it may have simply been a practical shift. But the difference in cognitive ability while being slightly caffeinated rather than distinctly inebriated may have played a much larger part in the great leaps forward by the likes of Priestly, Ben Franklin, John Adams and others than any of us may have realized.

I think it may be time for another cup.

[In an oddly serendipitous twist in looking for Steven Johnson's website, I of course tried - which turns out to be a website for Steve's Antique Technology. Completely unrelated, a bit weird, and yet extremely cool.]