Pagan Kennedy calls for openness and diversity in innovation

Pagan Kennedy

Pagan Kennedy lives at the cutting edge of discovery.

She has written about the first gender-confirmation surgery for a transgender man1, the cyborg-isation of medical patients and the tampon of the future.

Kennedy’s latest book, Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World, looks for common threads in the stories of people behind world-changing discoveries.

To close Chautauqua Institution’s week on “Invention,” Kennedy will address some of the obstacles and solutions facing inventors and innovators at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater. Her lecture will draw from her book and some of the reporting she’s done since she wrote it.

“I expected I would be talking to a lot of corporate engineers, and that really wasn’t the case,” Kennedy said.

In her book, Kennedy found that most corporate structures preclude the discovery of solutions to many basic problems. The fields of medicine and health care are full of examples.

“If a surgeon has an idea for a new kind of life-saving tool, it’s not easy for them to go forward,” Kennedy said. “They have to become businesspeople.”

Kennedy also found the limitations in drug research staggering. Above all, research requires a lot of money, and companies are reluctant to funnel money into projects unless there’s a very good chance they’ll get that money back, and then some.

Corporations are especially bad at public safety. As Kennedy wrote in her book, the first people to make cars safer for passengers weren’t car company executives. They were doctors.

“They were the ones seeing the grizzly results of these horrible accidents that were happening on the highway,” Kennedy said. Meanwhile, “the engineers at car companies were under pressure to make cool-looking cars that customers would buy.”

Even before activist and politician Ralph Nader was railing against car companies in the mid-1960s, physicians were rigging makeshift seatbelts for their own family cars.

“We have to talk about safety outside the corporate sphere,” Kennedy said, “because they don’t care.”

Kennedy noted that most companies are primarily attracted to ideas that will return a profit. That can be problematic because “there are many things we need that are not profitable,” she said.

In medicine, for example, “you want patients or surgeons to help solve the problem,” Kennedy said. “You don’t want a medical device company because they’re going to come up with a profitable solution that may not really solve the problem from the user’s point of view.”

The seeming incompatibility between the need to make money and the public’s well-being is far from new. And it doesn’t hold up in all cases.

“There are a lot of places where the interests can align,” Kennedy said.

But the current way of doing research and development often blinds corporate researchers to solutions that lie outside conventional areas of inquiry.

“If you tell people they need to focus on where you think the solution might be, that’s one of the worst things you can do,” Kennedy said. “Everybody’s already looked in the most obvious place.”

Still, corporations would rather not throw money into an unknown void and hope for the best. They hedge their bets with what they already know about a problem.

“It’s very understandable that a corporation with limited money would say to people, ‘We’re a telephone business, so we don’t want you to invent a new kind of solar power,’ ” Kennedy said.

Groundbreaking discoveries, Kennedy said, have often depended on luck.

“Really new ideas tend to pop up in unusual places,” Kennedy said.

To illustrate this in her book, Kennedy told the story of Duane Pearsall, who invented the first battery-powered smoke detector. While engineers were working on a way to detect fires in homes, Pearsall was developing a device to solve a relatively minor problem: reducing static electricity in places like factories and photography labs.

One day, when a coworker lit a cigarette in the office (it was the ’60s, after all), Pearsall’s device reacted to the smoke. The true value of the device didn’t occur to Pearsall until a forthright engineer at Honeywell told him to “cut the static crap and develop a smoke detector.”

Fruitful serendipity and the fanciful mental arabesques of a would-be inventor don’t stand a chance in the hermetic chamber of corporate innovation.

“Inventors are very much like musicians or artists,” Kennedy said. “The more they’re managed, the less creative they become.”

And, like artists, inventors are people who aren’t in it for the money. Sometimes, inventors are professional tinkerers with an obsessive love for, and openness to, discovery.

“The essence of creativity is taking something that we call trash and finding the beauty or the use in it,” Kennedy said. “At one time, petroleum was just stuff that came out of the ground. Someone had to recognize that it was useful and discover what to do with it.”

Petroleum became a way to power cars, heat homes, and turn Jed Clampett into a Beverly Hillbilly.

But where can these discoveries take place, if not in today’s corporate environment?

“There has to be a much more open space where people can come together to think about what the problems are, frame them, and discover a solution that would actually benefit the health and safety of most people,” Kennedy said.

Crowdfunding is a way for inventors to pay for their ideas while gathering feedback from the people who may eventually use their product. A more open development strategy can help inventors meet needs they didn’t know existed.

“A lot of our understanding or recognition of problems and solutions comes out of our personal experience,” Kennedy said. “We really need to capture that kind of knowledge.”

Put another way: “If you have skin in the game, an idea looks very different than when you don’t.”

But crowdfunding isn’t a silver bullet.

“You still have to fund basic science,” Kennedy said. “Unfortunately, we’re in a situation right now where all of that is in danger.”

The matter of who can and should fund research is still an open question.

“The solution is out there,” Kennedy said. “But we don’t know where it is yet.”

  1. July 5, 2017: This article has been updated to reflect guidance from Reuters regarding references to gender-confirmation surgery for transgender people.
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The author Philip de Oliveira

Philip de Oliveira reports on the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Logan Chamber Music Series for the Daily. He is the Walton D. Clarke Fellow at NPR member station 89.7 WKSU in Kent, Ohio, where he has filed stories for local newscasts and statewide for Ohio Public Radio. He occasionally contributes to Cleveland Scene magazine and Cool Cleveland.