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The evolution of invention is speeding up exponentially, observes John Amato in this thought-provoking article.

I was a sweaty little kid when I first explored the basis of the creative process: combining existing things into new combinations. Of course, that’s not how I thought of it at the time. Then, I just thought, “I hate mowing the lawn and getting covered with grass clippings when I empty them into the trash bag.”

It occurred to me things would be a whole lot easier if I could somehow put the trash bag inside the catcher so that the clippings would fly right into the bag, which I could then remove, tie up, and abandon at the curb as I ran back inside to resume reading “The Secret Agent on Flight 101” or whatever Hardy Boys mystery I was in the grip of at the time.

I tinkered with mower and bag briefly, and gave up quickly. (My eureka moment wasn’t accompanied by sufficient mechanical skills to move from idea to innovation). But I recall vividly what lingered in my mind.

“Maybe someday,” I thought, “I’ll be a ‘reinventor.'”

Well, that’s not exactly how things turned out, but as a public relations executive who specializes in the creative process, I do spend the majority of my time working on combining existing elements into new ideas.

The experience also gave me a basis for understanding two profound thoughts on the creative process that I wouldn’t encounter for another 20 sweaty summers or so. Both turn axioms of creativity on their heads.

Form follows function?

Henry Petroski, author of The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts — From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers — Came to be as They Are, uses example after example to show that the main catalyst for technological change is the failure of existing devices to live up to their promise. Each time someone with sufficient skills, creativity and frustration with a flaw in something seeks to improve it, they become what I had called a “reinventor.” Each subsequent frustration yields changes to the previous design — sometimes incremental and sometimes radical.

Take the toothpaste tube, for example. If form does indeed follow function, then it would seem that squeezing a small bag that leaves pockets of unused paste in its corners, bottom and rim is simply the way it should be. Fighting over who squeezes from the middle and who carefully rolls it from the bottom is therefore natural and ordained, because this “form” was dictated by the “function” of getting something out of a tube.

No way.

It was a good attempt and solved a variety of problems, but it left plenty to be desired. Just ask P&G. The consumer brand giant is very much in the business of selling toothpaste, and to sell more of it it has to find ways to solve more problems for consumers. Turns out toothpaste users hate the tube. The cap is hard to screw back on all the way when you have a toothbrush already occupying one hand. And one shouldn’t have to carefully choreograph one’s hand movements just to use the entire product inside something.

Enter IDEO, the industrial design wizards from California. Concentrating on the weaknesses of the tube, IDEO engineers introduced a flat bottom so the tube could stand up, a quarter-twist cap so you can put it back on the tube even if you’re wearing mittens, and — most important — a one-way valve that ensures no matter where you squeeze it, the tube empties from the bottom up. Even better, the valve creates a bit of a vacuum when you stop squeezing, so the remaining paste at the tip gets sucked right back into the tube. Clean, easy, neat.

Form, it seems, follows failure.

My dad’s mower with the catcher was certainly an improvement on mowers that just shot the grass back on the yard. And gasoline-powered mowers are regarded by most as an improvement on mowers powered exclusively by sweaty little kids’ muscles.

Necessity is the mother of invention?

John Lienhard, mechanical engineer and author of How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines, argues that the adage “necessity is the mother of invention” is a short-sighted view of invention. It wasn’t the need for trains, planes and automobiles that lead to their invention. It was the desire to cover distance with greater speed, convenience and autonomy than before. Desire, rather than necessity, as catalyst is evident with even a cursory glance of the marketplace. Video games, robotic puppies, Pez dispensers, espresso machines, surround-sound speaker systems, and action figures would bow their heads in shame before a court seeking evidence of necessity.

But, he asks, did society consider these things necessary before they were ubiquitous? No. In fact, not only is it more accurate to say that DESIRE, rather than necessity, is the mother of invention, but the greater truth may be that invention is the mother of necessity itself. Could you live without the Internet 25 years ago? Could you today?

“Reinvention” has been with us always; even if it has to be rediscovered by sweaty little kids each new summer, but it seems to me the evolution of invention is speeding up exponentially. Failures of form are tolerated now for perhaps only days or months rather than years before they are “fixed” yet again. And each iteration of invention seems to be adopted wider and faster than ever before, creating more “necessities” than our ancestors could possibly imagine.

John Armato is a senior partner and creative strategist with Fleishman-Hillard International Communications. He invites browsing, commenting, and subscribing at “Think Inside The Box,” his blog about the creative process, communications and living a life of ideas at http://www.thinkinside.biz.

Main image: Reinvent from Shutterstock.com

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