Necessity is not the mother of invention, contrary to what the well known adage says. Everyone suffers under the same necessity for a given circumstance or relevant state of technology, and most people just accept the limitations of the present, adjusting their lives to them. Most people don’t invent, they just make the best of a situation. Others, however, are not satisfied with the way things are and want to find a better way.
The real mother of invention is vision. Inventors don’t just see what is, they see what could be. Perhaps “inventor” is too restrictive a term. Innovator is a more generalized term, someone who makes anew, who doesn’t follow the old pattern, but makes a different, hopefully better one. It might be a consumer product, but it could just as well be a new business process to make a company more efficient or effective. It could be a scientific breakthrough that opens up whole new avenues for progress, but innovation itself doesn’t have to be ground shaking. The way that most products improve from crude but usable ideas is through tweaks and adjustments.
I recently came upon a little gadget by accident, but it caught my attention. Guitar strings need to be changed periodically, and the process of turning the tuning keys is long and tedious by hand, having to turn the key many times. Hand winders that attach to the key and make the winding easier have been around for a while, but they now make a little winding device that attaches to an electric drill, speeding up the whole process while making it much easier. I am not a guitar expert, so maybe this has been around for a long time, but whenever it was first offered for sale, it was a small adjustment to an existing technology that can make a big difference to people who are in the business. To most others, it is just a useless curiosity.
That little change might spark an idea in someone else who can see in their mind how to apply it to an entirely different situation. As writer, philosopher, and businessman Matt Ridley might have told it, ideas have sex, and their offspring, though they may have their own unique intellectual DNA, are often not that different from the parent ideas. When you hold your smart phone in your hand, you hold the ideas of not one inventor, but of thousands of minds who have added features, appliances, and apps that expanded on the basic idea to make it what it is today.
Inventions, however, take resources to develop. Thousands of hours are often devoted to a project, and maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs just for a prototype, and the vision doesn’t necessarily come out fully formed. There are often other limitations that must be tackled before it can work. What drives most innovation is the possibility of profit from it, being able to sell the idea or the finished product to make the effort and cost worthwhile.
The United States has always been a hot bed of innovation, and that is not merely coincidence. The idea or profit is well accepted here, and even encouraged, and has been manifested in relatively free and open markets. Customers have come to expect innovation, because competition for sales and related profits has kept businesses on their toes. If a company goes out of business, it is likely a sign that they have not been meeting the needs and expectations of customers, at least not as well as other sellers have. We need to encourage vision, the mother of invention, by making sure that markets stay free and that competition for profits remains the driving force.