You’ve all heard, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” Well, perhaps that’s true. But another parent might be frustration: wanting to do something better, more easily, faster than you currently can.
Yes, some products are developed to fill a need we haven’t known we had. Advances in portable technology, from the beach transistor radio and Sony Walkman to smart phones and PDAs, have often come up to create whole new markets once we realized that these devices we never had were indispensable. Ditto with kitchen technology improvements, like the microwave oven (I still don’t have one of those, by the way). Maybe we could call this “visionary innovation.” A lot of the really big sweeping changes come from these types of innovations: telephones, personal computers, solar collectors, bicycles…
But other innovations clearly arise because someone got frustrated by the limitations of what existed. Thomas Edison went through 10,000 experiments before he could develop a workable light bulb. Would he have had the patience for that long quest if he hadn’t felt frustrated that the dark hours were so unproductive? Certainly the idea of lighting a room has existed since the discovery of fire, thousands of years ago. But the need for better lighting became much more acute as the 19th century brought not only the Industrial Revolution (with big dark factory spaces to be illuminated) but also a mass culture that began to read actively.
Look at Google: Existing web search tools were very frustrating in the mid-1990s. To completely change the paradigm of how material was scanned by searchbots in order to achieve not only faster and more accurate searches but also a much cleaner interface was likely a response to the clumsiness of Yahoo and Alta Vista at the time.
I’m not an inventor, but I am an innovator. A few years ago, I registered some domains for what I thought was a very cool concept: Enter a budget for airfare, enter available departure and return dates (and how much latitude you had with each of those), possible departure airports, choose domestic or international, and have the site spit back suggestions for actual trips you could book (I remember that one of the domains was wherecanifly.com). This came directly out of my frustration trying to plan a trip without having a clear destination and having to laboriously enter itinerary after itinerary.
I still think it’s a brilliant idea, and one that would be easy to fund with venture capital, advertising, and commissions on travel services. But programmers I talked to told me that was a lot harder to engineer than it seemed. After a year of not finding anyone willing to run with it, I let those domains expire. (Anyone want to run with this, talk to me about being your marketing director ).
People like R. Buckminster Fuller and Amory Lovins seem to have an almost magical ability to fuse the visionary and the frustrated; they harness their frustrations not for the obvious incremental solution, but for something new and deep and very exciting—and they also have a certain inventor’s ADD. The present is never enough for them; they’re always on a quest for something new and strange and wonderful
Both Fuller and Lovins had an impact in industry after industry—reinventing construction, transportation, industrial manufacturing…whatever struck them as in need of improvement.
Right now, I’m in the process of launching the International Association of Earth-Conscious Marketers: a trade association for Green marketers. I hope that what comes out of this will also be a fusion of the best in these twin fathers of innovation.