Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Innovative geniuses today...not quite as before!

Sir Clive Sinclair was a modern British inventor. Famous in the late 1970s and early 1980s for bringing affordable micro computers into the home. The Sinclair ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum. Also the battery powered car. At the height of his fame he was asked if he thought people were becoming more and more innovatively intelligent. He said that he actually thought we were getting more and more stupid as time went on!

Although I don't totally agree, I can relate a little to what he meant. I love the world we live in, I love the capabilities and reliability of all the machinery and electronic systems we use every day. We can get much more done and at a quicker pace. But we understand so little of what we control. For example there was a time a few decades back when many with some DIY and electrical knowledge could understand and repair domestic electrical gadgets and service our own cars etc. Now sub-assemblies and big lumps of electronics are swapped out and thrown away and most gadgets are cheaper to replace than to repair. GUI computer operating systems like Windows and plug-and-play USB interfaces makes controlling PCs somewhat easier. But there is a wider and deeper content to computers at the electronics, BIOS and machine code level which is a mystery even to most good computer literate people. This is natural division of skills at play and largely there is nothing wrong with it. It's just that everything is getting so much more specialised to the extent that we are often losing the old abilities to think in an inventive and wider field of thought and have a reasonable knowledge on a lot of subjects. In pursuing useful progress we can get a bit blinkered and this can often affect good creative lateral thinking.

Innovative genius today in terms of science and technology is based on teams in laboratories unraveling mysteries which the average person no longer relates to. It's probably the exception now for one individual to stand out strongly. Breakthroughs are also often based on exploiting or improving on existing inventions and discoveries which other specialist teams elsewhere know more about.

Individual geniuses in the past had much simpler but wider sensory linked foundations to work with and certainly poorer tools. They had to be so creative and have powerful imaginations. Da Vinci, Copernicus, Gauss, Faraday, Planck, Einstein and many many more. The lateral thinking of Einstein was amazing. It takes a real open minded genius to figure out that the long accepted fixed time factor in an equation of motion is not a constant and depends on relative speeds. He had little to go on to prove his theory living in a pre-space age world of low relative speeds and lack of advanced facilities. Carl Friedrich Gauss was an exceptional individual genius in mathematics and physics. My esteemed 3rd level advanced mathematics lecturer often talked in awe about Gauss who seemed to be his inspirational role model. He once said..."Even on my very best day I would never be one hundredth as good as Gauss on his worst day!"

We live in a time of constant exciting changes and improvements. We have built great foundations and have fantastic tools to go further and further. There are special individuals who are creatively tuned into what's happening around them, who think differently and positively, and who then passionately work hard at what they believe. Not all will succeed, but coming from this pool are the individual innovative geniuses who will always shape the World. In my opinion in today's complex World it is the very special entrepreneur and leader who can bring progress to the masses through visionary and intelligent use of people skills (including technical teams) and resources. Progress is often at big financial risk also.

The right type of visionary entrepreneur would have a good macro view often missed by specialised technical teams. The idea will often involve exploiting existing technologies with some visionary thinking thrown in. Sometimes the spark of gold dust can even be blindingly simple with clever lateral thinking. As a crude micro example you only have to relate to one of Bill Cullen's tales in his autobiography "It's a long way from penny apples". As a child he was doing street selling in the Moore Street area. He had little bags of balloons and was trying to sell individual balloons for 1 penny each. Hard work and not too successful. Then he decided to inflate each balloon and put each on a stick. He sold big quantities of them for 3 pence each! A simple but ingenious lesson from a child in adding value. This type of thinking and more like it can easily apply to bigger projects.

Usually it's the commitment and hard work which is more important than the idea. For example, in the world of novel writing Maeve Binchy was more than once told by ordinary readers she met..."Your novels seem very simple, I could have written those myself and been as successful as you." Maeve's response was..."Yes, indeed you could, but you didn't!" It's a big step from thinking you can do something to making it really happen.

I'm not trying here in any way to play down the vital importance of specialised and systems level teams of scientists and engineers in innovation. Indeed the entrepreneur/leader may even be an engineer/scientist and on one of the teams. I'm just saying that in the complexity of today's wide knowledge base it takes additional skills to create a useful innovation and make it happen. What Sir Clive Sinclair was missing in his statement is that the type of people who are driving real mass progress are changing. A different type of creative intelligent thinking is emerging.

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