An Interview with Pagan Kennedy, Author of Inventology: How We Dream Up Things that Change the World

Pagan Kennedy is a journalist who regularly contributes to the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and numerous other magazines and newspapers. Kennedy is also an accomplished author who’s written 10 books. Her latest book is Inventology: How We Dream Up Things that Change the World. Kennedy invented the term “inventology” to describe the study of the process of invention. Kennedy filled us in on why and how she wrote the book, and why we can all benefit from reading Inventology.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

SuperheroYou: Can you describe the term “inventology?” 

Pagan Kennedy: That is the word I invented myself to encapsulate the idea that we need to study how people invent. Believe it or not, there’s no field of study around that right now. Of course there are people in various disciplines who look at that question from different angles, such as economists, ethnographers, psychologists and so on. And a lot of inventors themselves become very interested in their own process. So I found them to be good sources. But there’s really no discipline under which people try to figure out how we come up with these radically new ideas that end up having so much power. Often, an idea that seems very simple in retrospect is very difficult to put together but can have such power. For instance, people got the idea of using bacteria from the soil as medicine. That is an idea that completely changed the world and most of us are alive today because of that idea. So I became very interested in trying to study how people see these big opportunities that are hidden from us usually.

SHY: Inventology is based on more than 100 interviews with inventors and explorers in multiple fields, along with many studies and research papers. How did you go about choosing inventors and explorers to interview? What was the research process like? 

PK: It started for me a long time ago in the early 2000s. I began writing about inventors; so you probably noticed in the book that some of the reporting goes back more than 10 years. I was able to follow people for over a decade, which is pretty cool. I did a story on Amy Smith, inventor and founder of D-Lab at M.I.T., back in 2003 and caught up with Saul Griffith, an Australian-American inventor and founder of 7 different companies, back in 2004 and followed him around. I was becoming really interested back then in “humanitarian inventing” – people here who are trying to work with people in developing nations that are very poor in rural communities. Instead of just importing first-world solutions to those places, they look at what is going on there and how the problem could be solved in a way that makes sense locally. Also, they draw on the genius of local people who probably are already seeing a solution as opposed to some kind of imperialism where we come in and tell them what to do. So that was something I became really passionate about and really fascinated with. This is now a topic a lot of people talk about, but when I was reporting on it back then, this was not something I saw a lot of people talking about. It was a niche thing, and I think in the last 10 to 12 years, it’s a subject that we’re all thinking a lot more about – about equity, technology and delivering solutions to the people who need them. That became a passion of mine.

Then in 2012, the New York Times magazine hired me to write their “Who Made That” column. They would come up with an object (although sometimes I did) like the sippy cup or the pencil eraser. Then I would have to track down from where and from whom that idea originated and tell the story of how the idea came into being. It’s interesting to do that about any object obviously, but when you are doing it week after week, talking to inventors constantly and then seeing how these stories play out, it’s inevitable that you begin to see patterns. There were some obvious patterns that jumped out at me. One week, I’d be talking to the inventor of the cell phone, then the next week the daughter of the guy who invented the trampoline, and I began to see these ways that they worked and thought and the ways that the inventions came into being that were really similar.

When I took the job, I assumed that I would be talking to a lot of engineers and designers from product development labs. I certainly did talk to some of those people, but there were enormous amounts of new ideas and inventions that did not come from where you would expect. They didn’t come from these places we’ve designated as invention centers. They came from people out in the world – so doctors, parents, teachers, pilots, and others – who were engaged in and encountered problems that weren’t solved yet. They would have to come up with their own solution and often those solutions turned out to be really brilliant. There are a lot of examples of that in the book. Athletes are also very inventive, it turns out.

I also tried to find if it was just me or if other people had been studying these patterns I was seeing. For example, I talk about the user inventors, who are users or consumers at the leading edge of the product’s problem. It turns out there’s a whole group of economists who studied this and saw this exact pattern playing out with many objects, although not all of them. There are things that users inventors, or ordinary people in garages, can’t do, build or see. But things like medical equipment or athletic equipment are in the realm of user inventors. There’s a lot of data showing the importance of ordinary people out there who are engaging with problems in the innovative stream.

SHY: It’s interesting how your book idea manifested from your work writing for the New York Times’ “Who Made That?” column. What made you want to expand your research on the study of invention through writing a book? 

PK: I got excited because eight months into it, I was thinking, “I got these people on the phone who saw something that nobody else saw.” They had this creative idea that would change the world. I wanted to personally know what the formula is of coming up with a really groundbreaking idea. So I was personally really curious, and I had the opportunity to keep them on the phone and ask them all kinds of other questions that weren’t going to fit into the column. For instance, I would often ask people how they got their start, what their education was like and what made them different. So many inventors didn’t really mention school as an important part of their development. So many of them said that they had a space, like a garage, as a kid where they were allowed to blow things up and make a mess. And they had a mentor, an older person who encouraged them to take risks and told them it was okay to spill things, break things and make mistakes. They didn’t get in trouble when they blew out the electricity, or not in too much trouble. They were encouraged to take a lot of risks and to follow their curiosity. They were often working in a space where they had a lot of freedom and empowerment.

So really I think it gives us a lesson about how schooling might be. I think a lot of schools are now collaborating with the maker movement and adding these workshop spaces where kids are encouraged to work with their imagination – to come up with something they want to create and make a lot of mistakes, tinker, iterate and try things, to see what does work and what doesn’t. I think tinkering is something that doesn’t fit in so well with school, because it takes a long time. You make a lot of mistakes, and you don’t know what you’re doing as you go along. It’s very improvisational. But I think a lot of schools are now making space for that, so it’s really exciting.

SHY: Who is this book intended for? You mentioned in the book that we are a species that invents. Can anybody invent? 

PK: Definitely. I think everybody already is an inventor. If you look around your house, you probably have something made out of wire that you used to clean the drain or something made out of duct tape. Everybody has these little homemade DIY things they’ve created to solve a problem. But we don’t give that enough attention. Also on the Internet, there’s so much that’s changing the way we invent now and allowing many more of us to engage with invention. Say you write an Amazon review of something, and you say it sucks because it should be more durable. More and more, there’s somebody on the other end of that comment, a designer or an inventor, who is listening to that and making changes to the product. There’s much more of a feedback mechanism now, so users are really collaborating with designers. When we complain online, that can affect the design.

Also, I don’t know about you, but whenever I have some kind of a technical problem, like if I have a problem with software, long ago I would go to the Microsoft site or the site of the people who made it. I don’t do that anymore. I Google it, and I look for other people who are having the same problem. Usually, there’s somebody on YouTube or in a message board who has figured out a fix. Same with if I want to know how to make a pie or put a roof rack on my car. I’m not going to go to the manufacturer. I’m looking to other users – they have better ideas. There’s just so many more of them that they’re going to have the best ideas, and it’s going to get up-voted. So I think in our personal lives, it’s really familiar that we would look to the user inventors out there who would give us the best ideas.

It’s strange that this hasn’t hit so much in the world of business yet. But it is beginning to change. Companies and organizations like NASA are now getting very interested in this incredible wealth of ingenuity out there. Because so many millions of people are trying things and facing the problems, and they’re at the front end of the problem. It would be really expensive to hire 10,000 engineers to try these experiments, but we have people out there doing it and finding out that it’s not a good idea to glue this to that and learning from their experience. So there’s so much inventive creativity and knowledge out there in the public space right now.

It really gives me hope because we have some big problems, which I’m sure are clear to everybody – things like climate change and antibiotic resistance, aka the fact that antibiotics might not work anymore. Companies can do a lot of great things but they’re not really set up to solve things like climate change, antibiotic resistance or diseases. The idea that if we as constituents and people who care about the problem can come together and solve it, I think that’s really exciting. There’s a lot that can be gained from that. There are already some really interesting ways that’s happening. For instance, in the prosthetics community, people have come together to redesign prosthetics and make sure that kids can get access to free or cheap prosthetics. 

SHY: If I’m not interested in inventing, can I still learn something from Inventology

PK: My goal in writing this book was to get people to think differently about the technology and the design environment we’re in. It’s not something that is just handed to us or is inevitable. It is political and cultural. So the way everything is designed influences all our lives, and it’s not just if something is convenient. If your car is polluting or your medical drug doesn’t work very well, this is a life-and-death issue for all of us. Even if you’re not directly involved, participating in it and voicing your concerns is really important. If we don’t do that, then we don’t have a voice in the design environment. So there is a piece I published in the New York Times. It was on the cover of the Sunday Review, and it is about the gender gap in inventing. So I did my own little study and found that three-quarters of the inventors participating who have patents on menstrual products are male. This is just going back to the ’70s, so it’s from recent eras. The reason I bring up menstrual products is because obviously the only users are women and the people who know about whether they work or not – and indeed, the very people who originally came up with the whole idea of menstrual products – are women. But what you see often are entirely male teams of engineers working on these products. So I talk about that in the article. More than 90% of patented inventors right now are male. More than 90% of American-born inventors are white. The people who actually get to own ideas and control what they look like is a very homogeneous group of white men. So I think there’s a political and social agenda in the things we use. If our technology just comes from one point of view, it doesn’t serve us as well as it could.

For instance, more than 90% of venture capital investors are male. Women putting forth their ideas are often putting them in front of CEOs and investors who are an entirely male group. So women themselves may face discrimination or their ideas may come from a different perspective that doesn’t make sense to those investors. In the piece, I talked about this female inventor who has this amazing idea, but she really struggled to go forward. Now she’s doing great, but it was a real struggle for her to put this idea forward because it was one that didn’t make sense to many of the male investors – it involved tampons being used as medical devices. In fact, the whole space of women’s health has been neglected because we just don’t have as many women in the innovation stream.

So even if you’re not an inventor or that’s not your dream, just looking around you and questioning why things are the way they are is important. Why is the car built that way? Why can’t it be different? Imagining the world that you want to live in with the technology that makes sense to you is the beginning of this conversation. I think that more of us should be engaged in having this conversation about what kind of technology we want, and if it is serving all of us.

SHY: What’s the one message you would like every reader to take away from Inventology ? 

PK: This message of empowerment that everybody has the right and the ability to participate in changing the technology that we use – and creating, bringing new ideas in and critiquing the technology we have. The main thing is that I want to tell the readers, you have the right and the tools – we now have these incredible tools like 3-D printers and the Internet – to engage in this system of making technology and deciding what our world will look like.

Liked this? Check out our review of Inventology

Written by Diana Kim

Pagan Kennedy is a journalist who regularly contributes to the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and numerous other magazines and newspapers. Kennedy is also an accomplished author who’s written 10 books. Her latest book is Inventology: How We Dream Up Things that Change the World. Kennedy invented the term “inventology” to describe the study of the process of invention. Kennedy filled us in on why and how she wrote the book, and why we can all benefit from reading Inventology.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

SuperheroYou: Can you describe the term “inventology?” 

Pagan Kennedy: That is the word I invented myself to encapsulate the idea that we need to study how people invent. Believe it or not, there’s no field of study around that right now. Of course there are people in various disciplines who look at that question from different angles, such as economists, ethnographers, psychologists and so on. And a lot of inventors themselves become very interested in their own process. So I found them to be good sources. But there’s really no discipline under which people try to figure out how we come up with these radically new ideas that end up having so much power. Often, an idea that seems very simple in retrospect is very difficult to put together but can have such power. For instance, people got the idea of using bacteria from the soil as medicine. That is an idea that completely changed the world and most of us are alive today because of that idea. So I became very interested in trying to study how people see these big opportunities that are hidden from us usually.

SHY: Inventology is based on more than 100 interviews with inventors and explorers in multiple fields, along with many studies and research papers. How did you go about choosing inventors and explorers to interview? What was the research process like? 

PK: It started for me a long time ago in the early 2000s. I began writing about inventors; so you probably noticed in the book that some of the reporting goes back more than 10 years. I was able to follow people for over a decade, which is pretty cool. I did a story on Amy Smith, inventor and founder of D-Lab at M.I.T., back in 2003 and caught up with Saul Griffith, an Australian-American inventor and founder of 7 different companies, back in 2004 and followed him around. I was becoming really interested back then in “humanitarian inventing” – people here who are trying to work with people in developing nations that are very poor in rural communities. Instead of just importing first-world solutions to those places, they look at what is going on there and how the problem could be solved in a way that makes sense locally. Also, they draw on the genius of local people who probably are already seeing a solution as opposed to some kind of imperialism where we come in and tell them what to do. So that was something I became really passionate about and really fascinated with. This is now a topic a lot of people talk about, but when I was reporting on it back then, this was not something I saw a lot of people talking about. It was a niche thing, and I think in the last 10 to 12 years, it’s a subject that we’re all thinking a lot more about – about equity, technology and delivering solutions to the people who need them. That became a passion of mine.

Then in 2012, the New York Times magazine hired me to write their “Who Made That” column. They would come up with an object (although sometimes I did) like the sippy cup or the pencil eraser. Then I would have to track down from where and from whom that idea originated and tell the story of how the idea came into being. It’s interesting to do that about any object obviously, but when you are doing it week after week, talking to inventors constantly and then seeing how these stories play out, it’s inevitable that you begin to see patterns. There were some obvious patterns that jumped out at me. One week, I’d be talking to the inventor of the cell phone, then the next week the daughter of the guy who invented the trampoline, and I began to see these ways that they worked and thought and the ways that the inventions came into being that were really similar.

When I took the job, I assumed that I would be talking to a lot of engineers and designers from product development labs. I certainly did talk to some of those people, but there were enormous amounts of new ideas and inventions that did not come from where you would expect. They didn’t come from these places we’ve designated as invention centers. They came from people out in the world – so doctors, parents, teachers, pilots, and others – who were engaged in and encountered problems that weren’t solved yet. They would have to come up with their own solution and often those solutions turned out to be really brilliant. There are a lot of examples of that in the book. Athletes are also very inventive, it turns out.

I also tried to find if it was just me or if other people had been studying these patterns I was seeing. For example, I talk about the user inventors, who are users or consumers at the leading edge of the product’s problem. It turns out there’s a whole group of economists who studied this and saw this exact pattern playing out with many objects, although not all of them. There are things that users inventors, or ordinary people in garages, can’t do, build or see. But things like medical equipment or athletic equipment are in the realm of user inventors. There’s a lot of data showing the importance of ordinary people out there who are engaging with problems in the innovative stream.

SHY: It’s interesting how your book idea manifested from your work writing for the New York Times’ “Who Made That?” column. What made you want to expand your research on the study of invention through writing a book? 

PK: I got excited because eight months into it, I was thinking, “I got these people on the phone who saw something that nobody else saw.” They had this creative idea that would change the world. I wanted to personally know what the formula is of coming up with a really groundbreaking idea. So I was personally really curious, and I had the opportunity to keep them on the phone and ask them all kinds of other questions that weren’t going to fit into the column. For instance, I would often ask people how they got their start, what their education was like and what made them different. So many inventors didn’t really mention school as an important part of their development. So many of them said that they had a space, like a garage, as a kid where they were allowed to blow things up and make a mess. And they had a mentor, an older person who encouraged them to take risks and told them it was okay to spill things, break things and make mistakes. They didn’t get in trouble when they blew out the electricity, or not in too much trouble. They were encouraged to take a lot of risks and to follow their curiosity. They were often working in a space where they had a lot of freedom and empowerment.

So really I think it gives us a lesson about how schooling might be. I think a lot of schools are now collaborating with the maker movement and adding these workshop spaces where kids are encouraged to work with their imagination – to come up with something they want to create and make a lot of mistakes, tinker, iterate and try things, to see what does work and what doesn’t. I think tinkering is something that doesn’t fit in so well with school, because it takes a long time. You make a lot of mistakes, and you don’t know what you’re doing as you go along. It’s very improvisational. But I think a lot of schools are now making space for that, so it’s really exciting.

SHY: Who is this book intended for? You mentioned in the book that we are a species that invents. Can anybody invent? 

PK: Definitely. I think everybody already is an inventor. If you look around your house, you probably have something made out of wire that you used to clean the drain or something made out of duct tape. Everybody has these little homemade DIY things they’ve created to solve a problem. But we don’t give that enough attention. Also on the Internet, there’s so much that’s changing the way we invent now and allowing many more of us to engage with invention. Say you write an Amazon review of something, and you say it sucks because it should be more durable. More and more, there’s somebody on the other end of that comment, a designer or an inventor, who is listening to that and making changes to the product. There’s much more of a feedback mechanism now, so users are really collaborating with designers. When we complain online, that can affect the design.

Also, I don’t know about you, but whenever I have some kind of a technical problem, like if I have a problem with software, long ago I would go to the Microsoft site or the site of the people who made it. I don’t do that anymore. I Google it, and I look for other people who are having the same problem. Usually, there’s somebody on YouTube or in a message board who has figured out a fix. Same with if I want to know how to make a pie or put a roof rack on my car. I’m not going to go to the manufacturer. I’m looking to other users – they have better ideas. There’s just so many more of them that they’re going to have the best ideas, and it’s going to get up-voted. So I think in our personal lives, it’s really familiar that we would look to the user inventors out there who would give us the best ideas.

It’s strange that this hasn’t hit so much in the world of business yet. But it is beginning to change. Companies and organizations like NASA are now getting very interested in this incredible wealth of ingenuity out there. Because so many millions of people are trying things and facing the problems, and they’re at the front end of the problem. It would be really expensive to hire 10,000 engineers to try these experiments, but we have people out there doing it and finding out that it’s not a good idea to glue this to that and learning from their experience. So there’s so much inventive creativity and knowledge out there in the public space right now.

It really gives me hope because we have some big problems, which I’m sure are clear to everybody – things like climate change and antibiotic resistance, aka the fact that antibiotics might not work anymore. Companies can do a lot of great things but they’re not really set up to solve things like climate change, antibiotic resistance or diseases. The idea that if we as constituents and people who care about the problem can come together and solve it, I think that’s really exciting. There’s a lot that can be gained from that. There are already some really interesting ways that’s happening. For instance, in the prosthetics community, people have come together to redesign prosthetics and make sure that kids can get access to free or cheap prosthetics. 

SHY: If I’m not interested in inventing, can I still learn something from Inventology

PK: My goal in writing this book was to get people to think differently about the technology and the design environment we’re in. It’s not something that is just handed to us or is inevitable. It is political and cultural. So the way everything is designed influences all our lives, and it’s not just if something is convenient. If your car is polluting or your medical drug doesn’t work very well, this is a life-and-death issue for all of us. Even if you’re not directly involved, participating in it and voicing your concerns is really important. If we don’t do that, then we don’t have a voice in the design environment. So there is a piece I published in the New York Times. It was on the cover of the Sunday Review, and it is about the gender gap in inventing. So I did my own little study and found that three-quarters of the inventors participating who have patents on menstrual products are male. This is just going back to the ’70s, so it’s from recent eras. The reason I bring up menstrual products is because obviously the only users are women and the people who know about whether they work or not – and indeed, the very people who originally came up with the whole idea of menstrual products – are women. But what you see often are entirely male teams of engineers working on these products. So I talk about that in the article. More than 90% of patented inventors right now are male. More than 90% of American-born inventors are white. The people who actually get to own ideas and control what they look like is a very homogeneous group of white men. So I think there’s a political and social agenda in the things we use. If our technology just comes from one point of view, it doesn’t serve us as well as it could.

For instance, more than 90% of venture capital investors are male. Women putting forth their ideas are often putting them in front of CEOs and investors who are an entirely male group. So women themselves may face discrimination or their ideas may come from a different perspective that doesn’t make sense to those investors. In the piece, I talked about this female inventor who has this amazing idea, but she really struggled to go forward. Now she’s doing great, but it was a real struggle for her to put this idea forward because it was one that didn’t make sense to many of the male investors – it involved tampons being used as medical devices. In fact, the whole space of women’s health has been neglected because we just don’t have as many women in the innovation stream.

So even if you’re not an inventor or that’s not your dream, just looking around you and questioning why things are the way they are is important. Why is the car built that way? Why can’t it be different? Imagining the world that you want to live in with the technology that makes sense to you is the beginning of this conversation. I think that more of us should be engaged in having this conversation about what kind of technology we want, and if it is serving all of us.

SHY: What’s the one message you would like every reader to take away from Inventology ? 

PK: This message of empowerment that everybody has the right and the ability to participate in changing the technology that we use – and creating, bringing new ideas in and critiquing the technology we have. The main thing is that I want to tell the readers, you have the right and the tools – we now have these incredible tools like 3-D printers and the Internet – to engage in this system of making technology and deciding what our world will look like.

Liked this? Check out our review of Inventology

Written by Diana Kim

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