It is not easy to predict where ideas will lead to and their social consequences (good or bad), but that should not stop us trying.
One of the most thought provoking documentaries I have seen in recent times, of which the concept has stuck with me, is a series called How We Got to Now. The host, Steven Johnson, presents six ordinary things that we live with every day and illustrates the way that they have altered and influenced society. Steven traces historical events and the way we live today through the evolution of these things. For example, Ronald Reagan may never have been President of the United States had it not been for air conditioning. Air conditioning allowed a huge number of people to migrate to the middle states of the USA where existing living conditions were unbearable. This in turn altered the balance of college electoral vote in Regan’s favour. Air conditioning in turn came about because a printing firm was having difficulty with its printing inks bleeding in the humidity. The dehumidifier that the engineer invented made the room more comfortable to be in, so the staff chose to eat their lunch in there. And so, an unexpected need beyond his initial innovation was identified by Willis Carrier, the inventor.
In another episode, Steven discusses the evolution of being clean and particularly clean drinking water. Cholera was identified as being a waterborne killer disease, but no one knew how to remove it from the water until a doctor applied a clothes whitening product to water. Dr John Leal experimented in ways of killing bacteria and eventually found using chlorine bleach was the solution. In the end the process was applied worldwide to provide safe drinking water. The community spin off from clean water is the swimming pool and all the related sports, activities, theme parks, backyard pools and associated toys and gear... big business.
I find these connections between ordinary things or simple discoveries which lead to world-changing events rather fascinating, and there are plenty more examples out there. Certainly you might say that someone would make these discoveries or inventions eventually, but there are many factors at play. Firstly, there is the need or the problem. Secondly, there are the enablers to let it happen, such as the electricity for air conditioning. The enablers may come a long time after the need. Thirdly, there is the enquiring mind, always questioning or tinkering. Not all innovations come from field experts and not all innovations come from eureka moments. Sometimes they come from the slow burn of an idea.
It is natural to ask (and to borrow a line from an advertisement), “where to next?” It is not easy to predict where ideas will lead to and their social consequences (good or bad), but that should not stop us trying. New ideas are happening all around us, creating and evolving the enablers. Innovation, then, is the process that comes from using those enablers to improve the life of others. Sharing ideas, continually asking questions and challenging the norm is key to identifying those potential innovative opportunities, and looking back at inspirational and influential events is certainly a motivator.