Pagan Kennedy, Author of Inventology, On Creativity

In part 1 of our interview, Pagan Kennedy talked to us about her book, Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World. Today, Kennedy addresses the importance of creativity and imagination and why we are all capable of being inventive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

SuperheroYou: What is the difference between innovation and invention? You mentioned it briefly in Inventology, but can you explain it further? 

Pagan Kennedy: I really needed to make the distinction between innovation and invention because they really are separate. So invention, I borrowed from Arthur Fry, this inventor who defines invention as everything that happens at the beginning stages. Often in the beginning stages, whatever it is doesn’t seem like it’s going to be possible – like the handheld cellphone. At the beginning, nobody thought that was possible because how would you fit all those batteries and chips in this tiny package? It seemed nuts to people at the beginning because at the time that just wasn’t doable. So invention is thinking up a new possibility and then proving it can work. Often the way you prove it is with a prototype. So you build one of them and show that it can work. All of that is invention. Everything that happens after that is usually innovation. So now you’ve got your prototype, now you’ve proved your idea can work, but there’s a whole new stage that begins, which is how do we make millions off this thing? How do we sell these to people? How do we make

Everything that happens after that is usually innovation. So now you’ve got your prototype. Now you’ve proved your idea can work. But there’s a whole new stage that begins, which is how do we make millions off this thing? How do we sell these to people? How do we profit off of this idea? So that’s a different set of problems, and both are really important. But we tend to talk a lot about innovation; we talk a lot about how to make money off the idea, and we tend to neglect the more important question of how people conceive of these ideas in the first place. There are people who are both inventors and innovators, the inventors who figured out how to make money off of it and go forward. But very often the inventors don’t care a lot about money. They’re very much like artists and musicians – they’re very excited about making something new, and then they may not have a huge amount of skill in scaling it up or making a profit off of it and making a business. So there definitely are two different types of skills, and not everybody has both of them.

SHY: You emphasize the importance of creativity in inventing. If I’m not the creative type, how can I be involved in the process of inventing something? 

PK: Well I think that everybody is creative, so I for sure reject the idea that you’re not creative. And I think that you have insights about problems and answers that are unique to you, just because of your life experience, that are slightly different from the problems and solutions that anybody else is going to see. So there’s a little trove of treasure that you have. Now you may not feel like going full-on Kickstarter on it and setting up your business and putting your product or your idea out there, but be concerned about the way things are designed and offer your comments online in the ways that you’re probably already doing. Being engaged in a political process that gives more funding for basic science or for a public space where we can work on problems together is awesome too.

SHY: You profile all these inventors who were able to propose creative solutions to problems. How can we be more creative in that way? 

PK: This gets down to where I saw the different stories or formulas for the ways that people were creative. One way is to have a good problem and have it over a long period of time. So an example of this would be the rolling suitcase we all use today. There were other rolling suitcases that didn’t work as well. But the one that really changed the game came from a pilot who was having to schlep through the airport for hours and hours a day with not only his luggage, but also pilots used to carry these really heavy flight logs. So this was a real problem for pilots and stewardesses – the flight crew. When Robert Plath originally came up with this idea, I think he was thinking this would be something for him and other flight crews. Then it just turned out to be a problem that all of us have too, so it’s really good to have a problem that will be a bigger problem for more people in the future. So finding those problems, watching your own frustrations and pains and really feeling empowered, feeling that you have the right to solve your own problems, is also where it begins.

Our language is set up to disempower us. We tend to say they need to make a better mousetrap or someone needs to make shoes that are more waterproof. We just expect these ideas to come from some people with white coats in some lab somewhere. But the ideas are really coming from us. When we feel empowered, we feel like we can solve this and think about this. And again, it gets back to education too. The kids who were told they had the right and ability to solve problems – that really helped them grow up to be more interested in participating in invention.

Also, there’s a whole part of the book about serendipity and creative observation or seeing patterns around you, seeing clues, and having happy accidents. We tend to think of that as luck. We even talk about accidental inventions. But that ability to see a really valuable opportunity or a solution that could be applied to something is creativity, and we don’t acknowledge that enough. Being serendipitous is a form of creativity. It’s really interesting to look at the people who had the accident happen, had the ability to see the idea, but they just didn’t see it.

An example of this is William Crookes. In the 1880s, he was putting gases in X-rays and making the gases fluoresce. He had photographic plates around his lab and because he had X-rays everywhere, they were getting exposed. So there were these cloudy images in his photographic plates. He thought the plates were defective and he sent them back to the manufacturers, saying there’s something wrong with them. In fact, what he was seeing was the X-rays exposing the photographic plates. So he was surrounded by the clues but he didn’t put them together. Then there was a guy named Wilhelm Röntgen about 10 years later. He used the same tubes, but he realized that he could capture these images from the X-rays on the photographic plates. So there’s this famous picture of his wife’s hand. He had his wife put her hand on top of the plates with her wedding ring in there, so it’s a skeleton hand with a wedding ring. So he proved that these rays existed and that you can capture them, which had a hugely important medical use.

So you can see how probably most of us are like poor Mr. Crookes. We’re surrounded by the clues to something that’s really potentially rich and valuable and could change our lives, but maybe we’re just not seeing it. So really pay attention to those anomalies and those things that don’t fit and the things that seem like the cloudy images on those photographic plates. If you’re seeing something like that, something that’s weird and not fitting and that doesn’t make sense, having the ability to slow down and become curious about that and pull that string and follow it is really important.

Another really important idea I came across is going to sound super obvious, but it really is not obvious. Everything we make or create is for the people of the future. So when you’re doing this interview, it’s for people in the near future. But if you’re doing a book, it would be for people 2 years from now. You’ll have to think about: what’s going to be going on with them, and what are they going to care about? Especially in a field like computing or communications where things happen very fast and the turn of innovation is much faster than in many other fields. It tends to be a lot faster in computing where we have huge breakthroughs constantly. In that kind of world, it’s very important to be able to imagine what things will look like in 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years.

So let’s just pretend you’re going to start working on a phone that people will be using in five years. So you would need to think about what screens are going to look like and how they are going to work. They’re clearly going to be really different and brighter and maybe 3-D. Maybe the screen will come together with 3-D printing somehow, where you’ll be able to feel images or images will pop out and be physical. Who knows? What would the phone infrastructure be like? How is the information being transmitted? What will the computer chips be like? How fast, how cheap will they be? How much will everything cost? You’re going to be projecting ahead. This is very much how many of the creators, like Marty Cooper who invented the cell phone, thought.

In other words, long before they built a technology, they were working like science-fiction writers. They were imagining what the world would look like in 5 to 10 years. Then they were imagining what technology would evolve. They were trying to create even before it was physically possible to build whatever technology they were already beginning to design and think about. So many inventors think very much like science-fiction writers or science-fiction filmmakers, and they mix in prediction. They think a lot about what humans would want if more things were possible. In the future, there’s definitely going to be cheaper and faster everything. And when things are cheaper and faster, what would we want out of those possibilities? So there’s just such an interesting entanglement between science fiction and inventing. People like Jules Verne proposed things like aluminum spacecraft long before people were making stuff out of aluminum. They were not only predicting, but they were very influential. They were shaping people’s dreams and ideas about possibility.

SHY: Would you consider yourself an inventor as an author? 

PK: Being an author and a journalist, I feel like I am putting together ideas for people that fit together like little machines. But while I was writing this book, I actually had my own problem, which I ended up solving with my own little MacGyver machine. I’m a huge insomniac, and I have been for years. I think there are different kinds of insomniacs. But my kind is, I wake up in the middle of the night and then I can be awake for 5 hours or just never get back to sleep. The worst part for me is not even the day after when I’m really foggy. The worst part is lying there for hours, trying to keep my mind busy, and in that awful state where you’re trying not to try to fall asleep because if you try, then you’re not going to fall asleep. That tends to make me more of an insomniac because I would really dread being awake in the middle of the night. So I became obsessed with making different kinds of sleep masks that worked better than the kinds I can buy.

So I had this particular kind of socks that I would make into blindfolds by sewing them into loops. They’re very stretchy and where the ankle fits right over your nose. I had already been making these blindfolds for myself. Then I realized that if I cut slits in the inside layer, I could thread in an iPod. So everybody has a million broken earbuds lying around the house. You can take some that are still working and thread them into this loop of fabric. The earbuds are right over your ears, but they’re not sticking in your ears – the fabric is holding them right where your ear is. So now you can lie on a pillow with audio, and hook it up to one of your iPods.

Then I went around trying to figure out exactly what kind of audio would keep me entertained and comfort me and make it fine for me to stay awake for several hours in the middle of the night. That took a while. I was initially thinking boring books would be really good, but they actually don’t really work. There are fascinating new podcasts popping up all over for insomniacs. There’s this one called Sleep With Me, where he tells really boring stories and that seems to work. He has all these fans that say he cured their insomnia. But that didn’t work for me because it was too boring. I learned I need a semi-interesting book, but there should be no dead babies or nuclear holocaust in it. It has to be not emotionally engaging, but fascinating so that you can be very happy listening to it for a couple of hours – something that’s very rewarding to listen to. So if I am awake, it’s like a treat that I get to lay there. This cured my insomnia. It’s amazing. Now I put it on with a book, which is like a trigger, and I fall asleep. It’s also comforting that I don’t have to feel the mental pain or the dread – the pain of insomnia.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero? 

PK: I think my whole fascination with inventing began with one of my superheroes: Amy Smith, who is one of the people who really changed the way many of us think about what is possible in technology and who technology is for. She dedicated herself to working with and making solutions for the poorest people in the world, and also highlighting their genius. People who have very little have to be really creative because they don’t have the choice in the matter. It’s the only way to survive.

She, in turn, alerted me to many superheroes in developing nations. I just spoke on a panel with somebody I met through Amy, and his name is Sunday Silungwe. He’s innovating all kinds of solutions in Africa to change technology and start local businesses. Another hero, Mohamed Bah Abba, a Nigerian teacher, invented the pot-in-pot preservation cooling system, which refrigerates food. It’s this unbelievably clever solution that costs very little money and uses no electricity. People like that who can create something out of nothing – that’s what I’m in it for. It’s so inspiring to me that people can do that just with their imagination and creativity – create an opportunity out of what looks like a pile of trash. It’s incredible.

SHY: What is your real-life super power? 

PK: I feel like I have ordinary sad, shaky, very flawed human powers that come and go and sometimes work and sometimes don’t work. But one of my very ordinary and flawed human powers is to tell a story. And also, I’ve done a lot of teaching, helping other people tell stories. I think telling stories is a very important thing that we all do, to transfer something from our imagination to somebody else’s imagination in a way that people can relate to and care about.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered? 

PK: I would personally like to not die for a very long time so I won’t have to be remembered. But after I die, I feel like people shouldn’t remember me. They should go on and do new things and forget me. Explore new and interesting things because I’m not all that interesting. So I’m fine with being forgotten.

SHY: What is something you do every day that you wish everyone else did? 

PK: Being a freelancer and having some more control of my time, when I’m in a good period with my work, I am able to get outside every day. I really try to do that. I wish everybody could have the opportunity to do that. Because you can be very sunk into your screen and fell like life is boring and feel depressed and the minute you get outside, everything changes and your world suddenly gets bigger. So I think that unfortunately many people don’t have the opportunity or time to do that.

Liked this? Check out Part 1 of the interview! 

Written by Diana Kim

In part 1 of our interview, Pagan Kennedy talked to us about her book, Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World. Today, Kennedy addresses the importance of creativity and imagination and why we are all capable of being inventive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

SuperheroYou: What is the difference between innovation and invention? You mentioned it briefly in Inventology, but can you explain it further? 

Pagan Kennedy: I really needed to make the distinction between innovation and invention because they really are separate. So invention, I borrowed from Arthur Fry, this inventor who defines invention as everything that happens at the beginning stages. Often in the beginning stages, whatever it is doesn’t seem like it’s going to be possible – like the handheld cellphone. At the beginning, nobody thought that was possible because how would you fit all those batteries and chips in this tiny package? It seemed nuts to people at the beginning because at the time that just wasn’t doable. So invention is thinking up a new possibility and then proving it can work. Often the way you prove it is with a prototype. So you build one of them and show that it can work. All of that is invention. Everything that happens after that is usually innovation. So now you’ve got your prototype, now you’ve proved your idea can work, but there’s a whole new stage that begins, which is how do we make millions off this thing? How do we sell these to people? How do we make

Everything that happens after that is usually innovation. So now you’ve got your prototype. Now you’ve proved your idea can work. But there’s a whole new stage that begins, which is how do we make millions off this thing? How do we sell these to people? How do we profit off of this idea? So that’s a different set of problems, and both are really important. But we tend to talk a lot about innovation; we talk a lot about how to make money off the idea, and we tend to neglect the more important question of how people conceive of these ideas in the first place. There are people who are both inventors and innovators, the inventors who figured out how to make money off of it and go forward. But very often the inventors don’t care a lot about money. They’re very much like artists and musicians – they’re very excited about making something new, and then they may not have a huge amount of skill in scaling it up or making a profit off of it and making a business. So there definitely are two different types of skills, and not everybody has both of them.

SHY: You emphasize the importance of creativity in inventing. If I’m not the creative type, how can I be involved in the process of inventing something? 

PK: Well I think that everybody is creative, so I for sure reject the idea that you’re not creative. And I think that you have insights about problems and answers that are unique to you, just because of your life experience, that are slightly different from the problems and solutions that anybody else is going to see. So there’s a little trove of treasure that you have. Now you may not feel like going full-on Kickstarter on it and setting up your business and putting your product or your idea out there, but be concerned about the way things are designed and offer your comments online in the ways that you’re probably already doing. Being engaged in a political process that gives more funding for basic science or for a public space where we can work on problems together is awesome too.

SHY: You profile all these inventors who were able to propose creative solutions to problems. How can we be more creative in that way? 

PK: This gets down to where I saw the different stories or formulas for the ways that people were creative. One way is to have a good problem and have it over a long period of time. So an example of this would be the rolling suitcase we all use today. There were other rolling suitcases that didn’t work as well. But the one that really changed the game came from a pilot who was having to schlep through the airport for hours and hours a day with not only his luggage, but also pilots used to carry these really heavy flight logs. So this was a real problem for pilots and stewardesses – the flight crew. When Robert Plath originally came up with this idea, I think he was thinking this would be something for him and other flight crews. Then it just turned out to be a problem that all of us have too, so it’s really good to have a problem that will be a bigger problem for more people in the future. So finding those problems, watching your own frustrations and pains and really feeling empowered, feeling that you have the right to solve your own problems, is also where it begins.

Our language is set up to disempower us. We tend to say they need to make a better mousetrap or someone needs to make shoes that are more waterproof. We just expect these ideas to come from some people with white coats in some lab somewhere. But the ideas are really coming from us. When we feel empowered, we feel like we can solve this and think about this. And again, it gets back to education too. The kids who were told they had the right and ability to solve problems – that really helped them grow up to be more interested in participating in invention.

Also, there’s a whole part of the book about serendipity and creative observation or seeing patterns around you, seeing clues, and having happy accidents. We tend to think of that as luck. We even talk about accidental inventions. But that ability to see a really valuable opportunity or a solution that could be applied to something is creativity, and we don’t acknowledge that enough. Being serendipitous is a form of creativity. It’s really interesting to look at the people who had the accident happen, had the ability to see the idea, but they just didn’t see it.

An example of this is William Crookes. In the 1880s, he was putting gases in X-rays and making the gases fluoresce. He had photographic plates around his lab and because he had X-rays everywhere, they were getting exposed. So there were these cloudy images in his photographic plates. He thought the plates were defective and he sent them back to the manufacturers, saying there’s something wrong with them. In fact, what he was seeing was the X-rays exposing the photographic plates. So he was surrounded by the clues but he didn’t put them together. Then there was a guy named Wilhelm Röntgen about 10 years later. He used the same tubes, but he realized that he could capture these images from the X-rays on the photographic plates. So there’s this famous picture of his wife’s hand. He had his wife put her hand on top of the plates with her wedding ring in there, so it’s a skeleton hand with a wedding ring. So he proved that these rays existed and that you can capture them, which had a hugely important medical use.

So you can see how probably most of us are like poor Mr. Crookes. We’re surrounded by the clues to something that’s really potentially rich and valuable and could change our lives, but maybe we’re just not seeing it. So really pay attention to those anomalies and those things that don’t fit and the things that seem like the cloudy images on those photographic plates. If you’re seeing something like that, something that’s weird and not fitting and that doesn’t make sense, having the ability to slow down and become curious about that and pull that string and follow it is really important.

Another really important idea I came across is going to sound super obvious, but it really is not obvious. Everything we make or create is for the people of the future. So when you’re doing this interview, it’s for people in the near future. But if you’re doing a book, it would be for people 2 years from now. You’ll have to think about: what’s going to be going on with them, and what are they going to care about? Especially in a field like computing or communications where things happen very fast and the turn of innovation is much faster than in many other fields. It tends to be a lot faster in computing where we have huge breakthroughs constantly. In that kind of world, it’s very important to be able to imagine what things will look like in 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years.

So let’s just pretend you’re going to start working on a phone that people will be using in five years. So you would need to think about what screens are going to look like and how they are going to work. They’re clearly going to be really different and brighter and maybe 3-D. Maybe the screen will come together with 3-D printing somehow, where you’ll be able to feel images or images will pop out and be physical. Who knows? What would the phone infrastructure be like? How is the information being transmitted? What will the computer chips be like? How fast, how cheap will they be? How much will everything cost? You’re going to be projecting ahead. This is very much how many of the creators, like Marty Cooper who invented the cell phone, thought.

In other words, long before they built a technology, they were working like science-fiction writers. They were imagining what the world would look like in 5 to 10 years. Then they were imagining what technology would evolve. They were trying to create even before it was physically possible to build whatever technology they were already beginning to design and think about. So many inventors think very much like science-fiction writers or science-fiction filmmakers, and they mix in prediction. They think a lot about what humans would want if more things were possible. In the future, there’s definitely going to be cheaper and faster everything. And when things are cheaper and faster, what would we want out of those possibilities? So there’s just such an interesting entanglement between science fiction and inventing. People like Jules Verne proposed things like aluminum spacecraft long before people were making stuff out of aluminum. They were not only predicting, but they were very influential. They were shaping people’s dreams and ideas about possibility.

SHY: Would you consider yourself an inventor as an author? 

PK: Being an author and a journalist, I feel like I am putting together ideas for people that fit together like little machines. But while I was writing this book, I actually had my own problem, which I ended up solving with my own little MacGyver machine. I’m a huge insomniac, and I have been for years. I think there are different kinds of insomniacs. But my kind is, I wake up in the middle of the night and then I can be awake for 5 hours or just never get back to sleep. The worst part for me is not even the day after when I’m really foggy. The worst part is lying there for hours, trying to keep my mind busy, and in that awful state where you’re trying not to try to fall asleep because if you try, then you’re not going to fall asleep. That tends to make me more of an insomniac because I would really dread being awake in the middle of the night. So I became obsessed with making different kinds of sleep masks that worked better than the kinds I can buy.

So I had this particular kind of socks that I would make into blindfolds by sewing them into loops. They’re very stretchy and where the ankle fits right over your nose. I had already been making these blindfolds for myself. Then I realized that if I cut slits in the inside layer, I could thread in an iPod. So everybody has a million broken earbuds lying around the house. You can take some that are still working and thread them into this loop of fabric. The earbuds are right over your ears, but they’re not sticking in your ears – the fabric is holding them right where your ear is. So now you can lie on a pillow with audio, and hook it up to one of your iPods.

Then I went around trying to figure out exactly what kind of audio would keep me entertained and comfort me and make it fine for me to stay awake for several hours in the middle of the night. That took a while. I was initially thinking boring books would be really good, but they actually don’t really work. There are fascinating new podcasts popping up all over for insomniacs. There’s this one called Sleep With Me, where he tells really boring stories and that seems to work. He has all these fans that say he cured their insomnia. But that didn’t work for me because it was too boring. I learned I need a semi-interesting book, but there should be no dead babies or nuclear holocaust in it. It has to be not emotionally engaging, but fascinating so that you can be very happy listening to it for a couple of hours – something that’s very rewarding to listen to. So if I am awake, it’s like a treat that I get to lay there. This cured my insomnia. It’s amazing. Now I put it on with a book, which is like a trigger, and I fall asleep. It’s also comforting that I don’t have to feel the mental pain or the dread – the pain of insomnia.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero? 

PK: I think my whole fascination with inventing began with one of my superheroes: Amy Smith, who is one of the people who really changed the way many of us think about what is possible in technology and who technology is for. She dedicated herself to working with and making solutions for the poorest people in the world, and also highlighting their genius. People who have very little have to be really creative because they don’t have the choice in the matter. It’s the only way to survive.

She, in turn, alerted me to many superheroes in developing nations. I just spoke on a panel with somebody I met through Amy, and his name is Sunday Silungwe. He’s innovating all kinds of solutions in Africa to change technology and start local businesses. Another hero, Mohamed Bah Abba, a Nigerian teacher, invented the pot-in-pot preservation cooling system, which refrigerates food. It’s this unbelievably clever solution that costs very little money and uses no electricity. People like that who can create something out of nothing – that’s what I’m in it for. It’s so inspiring to me that people can do that just with their imagination and creativity – create an opportunity out of what looks like a pile of trash. It’s incredible.

SHY: What is your real-life super power? 

PK: I feel like I have ordinary sad, shaky, very flawed human powers that come and go and sometimes work and sometimes don’t work. But one of my very ordinary and flawed human powers is to tell a story. And also, I’ve done a lot of teaching, helping other people tell stories. I think telling stories is a very important thing that we all do, to transfer something from our imagination to somebody else’s imagination in a way that people can relate to and care about.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered? 

PK: I would personally like to not die for a very long time so I won’t have to be remembered. But after I die, I feel like people shouldn’t remember me. They should go on and do new things and forget me. Explore new and interesting things because I’m not all that interesting. So I’m fine with being forgotten.

SHY: What is something you do every day that you wish everyone else did? 

PK: Being a freelancer and having some more control of my time, when I’m in a good period with my work, I am able to get outside every day. I really try to do that. I wish everybody could have the opportunity to do that. Because you can be very sunk into your screen and fell like life is boring and feel depressed and the minute you get outside, everything changes and your world suddenly gets bigger. So I think that unfortunately many people don’t have the opportunity or time to do that.

Liked this? Check out Part 1 of the interview! 

Written by Diana Kim

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