We've often heard the phrase: necessity is the mother of invention. Looking around at the technology we use and every-day products on the store shelves, necessity does not seem to be the only driver. Sometimes it is a matter of attempting to make life easier, make us healthier, free up more time, etc. Whatever the reason, the reality is that the U.S. economy is driven by purchasing power and the creation of new "must have" products is critical to its growth. This means that invention, in many ways, is the mother of the U.S. economy. In order to maintain economic growth communities and businesses need to support invigorating inventor environments that encourage innovation that will continue driving our economy.
Invention versus innovation
Invention and innovation are often used interchangeably but, in fact, they are not the same. Invention in its purest sense is the creation or introduction of something new; innovation is more of a process of improving upon that initial creation. An analogy given by Tom Grasty in a 2012 PBS series explains this concept: "If invention is a pebble tossed in the pond, innovation is the rippling effect that pebble causes. Someone has to toss the pebble. That's the inventor. Someone has to recognize the ripple will eventually become a wave. That's the entrepreneur."
Invention is inspiring
Most Americans are fascinated by the idea of invention, the concept that an idea they have could become something millions of people would want to purchase is part of the American dream. So we tend to romanticize those who invent. When I tell people I'm an inventor, their eyes get wide and they smile like I've done something miraculous. What they don't realize is that it is not just me, but a process of innovation that took the idea I thought of to become a real consumer product. This process is the real benefit to the community: establishing a high-energy, creative, inspiring and fun environment that is the result of the innovation process. However, that doesn't happen as a lone inventor. We need the creative thinkers, mentors to give feedback and businesses with resources to physically manifest the product. It is essentially a myth that lone inventors like Thomas Edison even existed. The history of the light bulb, or any other product, is far more complicated than a single individual. Spend some time walking through Bellingham's Spark Museum and you'll see examples of how many different people are involved in the invention and innovation of the things we can't live without.
Innovation creates opportunity
Not only are invention and innovation fun, but they are an everyday part of our economic engine: You create something people will buy, collect the money, then go out and spend that money on something someone else created for you to buy. Many businesses have already figured out that encouraging their employees to be inventive or innovative is good for their bottom line. Design-thinking workshops, open concept offices, creative spaces, rapid prototyping, et cetera, are all ways companies have created a culture of innovation internally. Some of these businesses that have embraced this culture are mentoring others to do the same, but many more are needed. Libraries, which have traditionally been a great starting point for creating cultures of innovation, need some adaptation of these facilities in order to keep up with the pace of technology. Local business and community leaders need to step up to create these same kinds of creative spaces that allow any individual an opportunity to be inventive and innovative.
Everyone in the community benefits when inventors and a culture of innovation are nurtured. Innovation starts with that pebble being tossed in the pond and we need lots of inventors tossing pebbles. Then the community can work to keep the pond open and free from barriers so entrepreneurs can ride the wave, building innovative new companies or products that bring economic growth to Whatcom County.
I just tossed a pebble in the pond, who wants to stick around to see that ripple turn into a wave?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lara Merriam-Smith is the program manager for NW Innovation Resource Center, a Bellingham-based organization that supports economic opportunities through entrepreneurial innovation in northwest Washington. It helps inventors looking to take products to market and connects new start-up businesses with resources to help them grow. For more information online go to nwirc.com.