News, On Campus

From Idea to Product: Pagan Kennedy Discusses Innovation

It was in 1970 that the idea for the cell phone came to fruition. The forward thinking of an inventor led to its creation, according to Pagan Kennedy, author and former creative writing professor at Boston College.

On Wednesday night in Devlin Hall, Kennedy spoke to an eager crowd about her most recent book project, Inventology, in which she studies the process innovators go through to bring society essential items society didn’t know it needed. Kennedy has numerous accolades, including eleven books and participation in a column series in The New York Times Magazine. Titled “Who made that?” the column explores solutions spurred by humankind’s thirst for efficiency and convenience.

“When you really care about something and it’s your problem, and you have skin in the game, you don’t settle for a half solution,” she said.

Kennedy explained that experiencing discomfort, nagging or otherwise, best influences ideas of a permanent solution within a niche.

An example she brought up was the issue of luggage for air travel. Before high demand for commercial planes, no one had bags with wheels. Everything was carried via oversized tote. This inefficiency was especially prevalent for pilots needing to carry their heavy belongings from plane to plane each day.

As time went on, it also was becoming a problem for businessmen taking frequent flights. The first solution was a four-wheeled bag oriented like a double-decker bus, with a leash so you could pull your bag along behind you. This advancement wasn’t quite as refined as it needed to be though, as on a downhill the bag would chase the owner’s ankles, often leaving bruises on the back of legs.

Then a pilot named Robert Plath designed the conventional two-wheel solution, and that model stuck. Kennedy reinforced, along with this example, that it was experience and personal motivation in a solution that ultimately led to the best version of the suitcase.

Another key to invention Kennedy found in her research was the idea of forward thinking.

“You don’t create something for the world that is,” she said. “You think about where the world is going to be.”

Kennedy discussed her interview of Marty Cooper, known for inventing the mobile phone. Cooper understood the direction of the telephone towards being small and mobile in the 1970s. He figured that future technology would allow electronic components to be smaller, and eventually small enough that people could carry their devices around, placing calls from wherever the holder pleased.

By the 1970s, he had been working at Motorola for almost two decades, making his experience in the field a huge asset in his innovation. Cooper was able to identify the future potential of the telephone due to his proximity. His experience brought his idea into reality.

Despite personal experience being a main component in invention, Kennedy also marveled that half of all patents originated from “serendipitous discovery,” or when applied research in one field led to a solution for another.

She referenced the invention of Splenda, an artificial sweetener, being created from a botched attempt at making insecticide. Though tasting insecticide isn’t a recommended method in inventing new products, it’s the awareness of one’s surroundings that leads to the most success, Kennedy believes.

“You are sniffing around … looking for something that looks like a clue … looking for the dots that maybe you can connect,” Kennedy said. “It happens that sometimes, those dots implicate a broad portion of society, turning good ideas into necessary goods.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

September 28, 2017