Inventing the Future with Pagan Kennedy
September 22nd, 2017
Most people take for granted the wonders surrounding us, including the accumulated inventions of many centuries that make our lives safer, easier, more productive and more satisfying. We rarely stop to think of who invented things that are indispensable to daily life. If you want to open your eyes to a richer appreciation of the world of invention and inventors, and the psychology and thought processes that underpin this discipline, turn to Pagan Kennedy and her 2016 book Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World.
Kennedy has written a number of books and countless freelance articles in a variety of publications. Inventology has its roots in “Who Made That?”, a column she wrote for the New York Times. Beyond a renewed appreciation for inventors and invention, the book might also restore your faith in humanity: every minute of every day, people are working on problems large, small and previously unforeseen, that will have positive effects on the lives of everyone, now and into the future.
While it is a celebration of inventing and inventors, Inventology is also a superb book about creativity, serendipity, imagination, innovation and entrepreneurship. Kennedy interviewed numerous people across disciplines, from inventors to physicians, scientists, researchers and professors. Although in many ways the book is centered on the study of individual creators, there is also a lot about corporate research and development/R&D.
Kennedy is a born storyteller who weaves brief but intricate accounts from interviews with people like Martin Cooper, who invented the hand-held cell phone while working for Motorola in 1972-73, and Dr. Yogen Saunthararajah, a hematologist and oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, who is motivated by, among other things, a simple thought: “Can’t we do better?” She devotes considerable space to the invention/innovation/problem solving technique TRIZ, which is popular in many corporations today, and developed by Genrich Altshuller in mid-20th century Soviet Union. She also breathes new life into the stories of well-known American technology figures that era, such as Vannevar Bush, who in a 1945 essay for The Atlantic, “As We May Think,” conceived the never-built but extremely influential internet-precursor called the Memex; and Doug Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse in the early 1960s.
Just as these people envisioned things that were invisible to others, Kennedy celebrates the idea of ‘mental time-travel’ to the future, as an aid to inventing. At the conclusion of Chapter 10, “The Mind’s R&D Lab,” she provides some prompts for this activity and states the following: “You will notice that as you begin working out the details of your future, you are telling a story. The R&D lab inside our minds has a highly narrative quality to it. If you’re inventing a futuristic machine, you have to tell a story about the people who will use it: Where do they live? What are they worried about? What do they desire?”
Your capacity for wonder and appreciation for the good things in life, and the even better things that will inevitably materialize in the future, will get a welcome boost from Kennedy and her ingenious idea of Inventology.