Viewpoint: The 'invention illusion' means new rarely is new

By Paul Martin
Chief technology officer, Plextek

  • Published
Image caption,
Inventions need predecessors to build on

Today, with very few exceptions, there is no such thing as a truly new invention.

Despite what marketers would have us believe, recycling inventions and the cross-pollination of technologies for new applications are at the heart of all developments in the 21st Century.

Rather than waiting for light-bulb moments, true innovators today are looking at other sectors and applying existing technologies in unexpected ways.

Here's an example. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell is famously credited with inventing the telephone.

Many years later, in 2007, Steve Jobs introduced us to the iPhone. Despite all the hype though, the iPhone was not a new invention - it was just a much better telephone than any we'd seen before.

By the time the iPhone hit our shops, we'd already seen plenty of mobile versions of the humble telephone, and smartphones had been around since the 1990s.

The iPhone caused such a stir because it included a few perceived "firsts" - it was commonly regarded as the first touch-screen phone, for example. However, touch-screen technology itself wasn't new - it first appeared in the 1960s, and had actually appeared in other mobile handsets before.

Similarly, when Apple introduced the accelerometer to its mobile handsets, it was widely believed that this was a new technology.

Before the iPhone, accelerometers were already found in vehicles, medical devices, navigation systems and more - but, by applying this technology to their smartphones and aggressively promoting its benefits, Apple changed consumer perceptions of what was possible with a smart phone.

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive - just look at the abundance of popular iPhone apps that have been developed and sold that take advantage of the accelerometer's capabilities.

What Apple achieved with the first iPhone was truly groundbreaking, but it was the result of very clever innovation, with existing technologies applied in new ways. It was not a new invention.

More than semantics

In case there is any doubt, this type of innovation is absolutely a good thing.

It is the reason that the speed of technological progress continues to snowball.

Most industry sectors no longer work in isolation. Instead they learn from each other's successes and mistakes.

Using existing technology and applying it differently can also be a cheaper and easier way to get to market than "re-inventing the wheel".

Not so good, however, is the lack of recognition and awareness of these processes.

Consumers are presented with an "invention illusion", which is really little more than a marketing tool to give the impression of "breakthrough" products. This is a difficult cycle to break, particularly with the media's appetite for sensational stories, and it is hampering opportunities for credible companies without sexy stories.

It also means that many entrepreneurs are looking for innovation in the wrong places and pursuing new product design ineffectively.

There is a common misconception that great ideas come from a blank sheet of paper, but this is simply not true - good developers will come up with better, smarter product designs if they know what they are trying to achieve and where they can look for existing know-how.

The best ideas require information, not just inspiration, and this information should be drawn from a much wider pool of sector experience.

Damaging our economy

Worse still, some entire industries remain closed-off to this type of cross-sector innovation and this, partnered with constrictive supply chains, is stifling technological progress.

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Lack of recognition for real innovators is a problem, Paul Martin says

An example is the global automotive supply chain, which has historically been difficult to penetrate, as manufacturers have been closed-off from exposure to new ideas from technology providers.

Greater recognition for innovation and more opportunities to encourage cross-sector research and collaboration would be of huge benefit to the global technology industry.

Multi-sector product design and development consultancies are "innovation hubs" where the transfer of sector skills happens under a single roof, but this concept could be rolled-out on a national or even international scale with government or trade organisation-backed events and networks.

In the UK automotive industry, for example, the NMI Automotive Electronic Systems Innovation Network was established and gained real traction in 2012, specifically to tackle these issues and open up the innovation chain.

Ultimately, we should be proud of our ingenuity in applying existing know-how in completely unexpected and exciting ways.

In this hyper-connected world, insular industries will be left behind.

Paul Martin is chief technology officer at technology design and development consultancy Plextek.