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SUMESH ARORA — Necessity is the mother of invention … or is it?



A s we close out 2015 and start thinking about the new and cool things 2016 will bring, I turn my attention to the utility of many of inventions around us.  The old saying “necessity is the mother of invention,” which came into common use in the English language in the early 1500’s according to Dictrionary.com, is based on a dialogue by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato.  It basically implies that a need or problem encourages creative efforts or drives us to come up with solutions to solve the problem at hand.  But is that really true in the technology driven age?

It took nearly 50 years before 40 percent of the households in the United States had a telephone, leading me to hypothesize that the general public did not really need this device even though the invention had been around for decades.  Most people lived in close proximity to their friends and relatives and they were generally not very mobile.  So the telephone was an invention that was truly ahead of its time and radically innovative in its time. Alexander Graham Bell, who is most often credited with the invention of a practical telephony device, was the first to obtain a patent, in 1876 for an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically.” Bell, however, was not alone in his quest for making this device and there were several other scientists, researchers and inventors in North America and Europe who are credited with telephone-related developments.  There was much to learn and understand at that time about electromagnetism, vibrations and other principles of physics to make bold visions of the time of speaking to someone across the ocean in real time come true.  As a side bar, the term “real time” was first used in 1953 according to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

Today we cannot imagine our lives without a telephone.  Actually, we cannot really imagine our lives without a smartphone! But did we know just 20 years ago that we needed a smartphone, or what smartphone even was?  According to an article in the Harvard Business review, smartphones accomplished a 40 percent penetration rate in just 10 years between 2002 and 2012.  You may be wondering if the first generation Apple iPhone was not launched till June 2007, why am I going back five years to the introduction of the first smartphones.  Anyone remember the BlackBerry or Palm-OS-powered Treo model that could make phone calls?  Marketing data show that smartphone penetration in the U.S. will have exceeded 80 percent as of the end of 2015.

We see from the above examples that innovators were hard at work developing new technologies which may not be used for years to come.  They created products which have become indispensable for our personal lives as well as conducting business.  There is a fine line between an innovation and an invention.  Many inventions, even ones with a patent, will never be put into commercial use.  Just search for “useless inventions” and you are sure to get a laugh.

It is safe to say that successful innovations are adept at targeting the “necessity” and provide the appropriate invention to address that need.  Innovators, by nature are individuals who have cultivated the ability to perceive the necessity long before others have realized they need something.  Successful entrepreneurs are individuals who take a key innovation, regardless of who develops it, and build businesses around them, placing the inventions in the hands of the masses in ways they can use them and benefit from them.  History shows that Alexander Graham Bell was not only an inventor, but also an astute businessman with money and government connections, some of which are considered controversial, that enabled him to come out ahead of his contemporaries such as Antonio Meucci or Elisha Gray.

It is also interesting to note the significant difference in the amount of time it took for the original telephone to gain a solid foothold in the American economy compared to the smartphone.  The Internet, World Wide Web browsers and the cellular networks were among the enabling technologies for smartphones to function as they do today.  Smartphones allow us to generate data (I mean pictures and videos) and access our information from practically anywhere and share them anyone you choose to give access to.  Unfortunately, as it has been in many cases, individuals and groups with the know-how and malicious intent are able to break into the computer systems and collect this information without proper authorization.  Regardless, smartphone usage is on the rise globally and is further enabling other innovators to seek solutions to old problems like hiring a taxi on a city street or making retail financial transactions simpler.  A recent article in TIME magazine quoted Travis Kalanick, CEO and co-founder of Uber, saying, “What drives me is a hard problem that hasn’t been solved, that has a really interesting and impactful solution. And for me it doesn’t even matter what the problem is.  I just gravitate towards it.”

I will leave you to decide for yourself whether it is the necessity that drives new inventions, or the advancement in science raises more questions that we have yet to find answers for.  One thing is clear in my mind: the human spirit and quest for knowledge is what drives both.  Here’s to finding new problems and wishing everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.

» Dr. Sumesh Arora is Vice President at Innovate Mississippi, a non-profit organization with a mission to drive innovative business growth in Mississippi.  His doctoral research was focused on how new ideas spread and its applications to business, economic and policy development.  Follow him on Twitter @DrSumeshArora or contact via email at sarora@innovate.ms with questions about developing innovation strategy for your company or organization.


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