We might be about to see a big and very welcome change in the way we innovate and invent. About 20 years ago we were bemoaning the move from individual inventor to corporate R&D, when most well known developments seemed to come out of company labs, and companies such as Philips and IBM invested more and more in pure research and it’s commercialisation. While inventions were still coming from an idea by an individual, the individual and the teams that went on to develop them were more often than not working for a large corporation.
Who remembers Charles P. Ginsburg of Ampex Corporation, who led the team which invented the first video recorder; or Dr. Percy Spencer from weapons developers Raytheon Corporation, who first discovered that microwaves could be used in a new type of oven; or the team behind the Joint Strike Fighter?
The day of the individual inventor seemed to be over, with the likes of Edison, Bell and Gutenberg perhaps ending with someone like Robert Moog or Raymond Kurzeil. This also seemed the case in my industry, with the days when an individual software developer could design and build a product on their own, also almost over. Goodbye to the heady days of software invention by engineers such as Dan Bricklin, Bill Budge and Alan Bird, to name a random few.
However, about five years ago the ABC TV show “The Inventors” popped back on air, and there seem to be a lot more news stories these days about individual inventors again. How come?
This story about a bed which makes itself is amusing, and was invented by an individual, Enrico Berruti. Now you may be thinking well, that’s what you get from an individual inventor, but Jean-Luc Vincent, who chairs the International Exhibition of Inventions where the bed is being shown, makes reference to Proctor & Gamble’s Connect & Develop strategy, where up to 50% of the P&G’s innovations are sourced from outside the company. Of course this doesn’t mean that these are all by individuals, but there’s at least recognition that invention happens outside a formal lab environment, and more often than not when an individual randomly gets a really clever idea all of a sudden.
In software at least, are we finally seeing a shift back to individuals or small teams? Things went out of control when users started expecting more functionality in their products, particularly with companies such as Microsoft setting a new benchmark in software complexity. Small developers found it difficult to satisfy ever growing user expectations of what good software should include.
About 15 years ago I used to write software packages on my own, and have them marketed by software publishing companies. I haven’t done that in a long while, due to the work that would be involved in developing so much new code from scratch. But with open source and COTS now being increasingly low risk and easy to integrate options for developers, maybe we are seeing a revitalised community of individual developers.
So go and invent something!