Jennifer Light, Northwestern University, oriented the group to current thinking, across disciplines, about the connections between place and invention. She presented a review of recent research in the form of a syllabus for a new course she would teach, aptly named “Places of Invention.”
She began by asking three fundamental questions, each targeted to examine assumptions about invention and place and to study their intersections:
- What is invention?
- How does place matter?
- Why take a historical approach?
What Is Invention?
Invention, she paraphrased, is like pornography—scholars seem to know what it is, but they typically do not define it. She noted that while there is a growing literature across disciplines on inventiveness and innovation, frequently authors fail to explain their terms. As the group discussed this, they differentiated between scientific discovery and technological invention. The first consists of phenomena that existed but were previously unknown to humankind, while the second involves the creation of something that never existed before, particularly something having utility. The question of artistic invention was also raised, but was seen as a less useful concept than artistic creativity. An important point of agreement was that invention often results from cross-fertilization of ideas from different fields brought together to answer new questions. Members of the group offered illustrations of biomimicry (for example, studying the shape of a kingfisher’s beak in order to streamline the design of Japanese high speed trains); the transfer of knowledge (such as using the experience gained from steam engines to inform the field of thermodynamics); or fusing disciplines (for example, Howard Becker’s merging of art history and sociology in his book, Art Worlds).
How Does Place Matter?
Light presented an overview of scholarship in several fields, noting three points that scholars have made in their assessments of the relationship between place and innovation. First, scholars have observed that individual leaders play a crucial role in fostering creative spaces. Architects for example, design work spaces that they believe will enhance communication and cross-disciplinary collaboration. Managers can contribute by “participating in idea generation rather than remaining on the sidelines, focusing more on the structure, timing, and objectives of projects than on the specific conduct of the work, allowing workers freedom and flexibility in how they go about accomplishing their mission, and developing the social skills to facilitate coordination among collaborators with different backgrounds and forms of expertise.”
In addition, social scientists in sociology, economics, and other fields have shown the importance of social and collaborative networks. Invention is often a process that spans disciplines, but even self-styled independent inventors have social networks that support and enhance their work. The group discussed what they perceived as an increase in access to multiple networks, facilitated by new and faster means of communication. This in turn increased exposure to ideas and techniques from multiple disciplines.
The third factor in the relationship between innovation and place, illustrated by scholarship in legal and policy studies, emphasizes the importance of community codes. Government regulatory policies, for example, designed to foster invention and innovation, may in fact constrain them as well. The U.S. patent system illustrates this tension. Applying for and defending patents take time away from inventive work, yet a patent has both tangible and intangible value, protecting an inventor’s work and conferring a cachet of genius. Evidence exists that the lack of a robust patent system hinders invention in developing nations.
Why Take a Historical Approach?
Light reported that scholars have identified changes in the inventive process from the late 19th through the 20th centuries, suggesting the value of taking a historical approach to assess even contemporary innovation practices. These included moving from producer-defined processes to ones incorporating the response of consumers; from discreet to continuous activities; and from field-specific to multidisciplinary work. One specific departure in the late 20th century from traditional places of invention is the use of cyberspace for collaborative and distributed work. But surprisingly, scholars have not found that inventive activities conducted in cyberspace differ significantly from those in more traditional locations. “While cyberspace has diversified the venues in which participants in the innovative process can meet,” Light noted, research interpretations make the case that “there is as much continuity as change in the era of the Internet.”
Light’s overview of research in the field led her to propose two areas requiring further study. First, creating and sustaining places of invention are related but separate endeavors; places that first succeed as places of invention can fail in the long term. However, most scholarship considers only the creation of a place of invention. Second, existing studies of inventive spaces typically focus on the generation, not the reception, of ideas, but the latter is a critical phase of the inventive process. She noted there is an entire field of research on the diffusion of innovation that might be tapped for ideas.
Circular image above: Jennifer Light speaking to the Lemelson Institute participants; Fred Gage is at her right. © Smithsonian Institution