When I was a kid I thought that it would have been more fun to have lived in the time of Edison. Back then there were lots of uninvented things and plenty of opportunity. But right now, I feel that for good reasons, which I'll describe, you couldn't have picked a better time to be an inventor.
We were taught that great inventors invented great things. Edison, the Wright brothers, Marconi,.. they had all of the brains. But, I've come to believe that invention isn't just about brains. I can recall listening to Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland who presided over its movement to democracy when he was asked if "he invented Polish democracy." He said (and I'll paraphrase from memory) that "it was simply time for Polish democracy to be invented and he happened to be standing at the right place at the right time."
So here's another way to think of invention. Each invention is built upon the shoulders of prior inventions. The Wright brothers needed aluminum cast engines and Bernoulli's principles describing wing lift to be able to attempt powered flight. In fact, while the Wright brothers were working in the US, others like Santos Dumont, in Brazil, and Gustave Whitehead and Clement Adler in Europe were all working on the same "inventions." They all had the same building blocks to work with.
Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman has a wonderful way of describing this. He calls it the "adjacent possible." The next combination of existing information plus a little creativity (or randomness) to form the next invention. But back in the early 1900's information spread over the planet a lot slower than it does today. Now, with the Internet, every inventor can access much of the world's information in an instant. So, being the person that pushes the bubble and offers a new combination is now open to anyone with an Internet connection, some time, and a little creativity.
But, how do you know where to push, and which prior inventions should be recombined? And, as Captain Hook said: "that's where the canker gnaws."
So, there are four essential tasks required to being an effective inventor.
First, you need to know what's happening. Technology is moving at ever increasing speeds (for reasons that I'll describe in another post). We see improvements in robotics, artificial intelligence, computer processing, voice recognition, image analysis, genetics, drones, ... the list seems endless, on a daily basis. The first challenge for the aspiring inventor is to be informed at the depth of one inch on a wide variety of technologies. Curiosity must drive you to constantly learn a little about a lot.
Second, you need to identify a problem that needs to be solved. It's hard to know how to use all of that information, if you don't know what to do with it. Most entrepreneurs tend to look to solve consumer problems because they, themselves are consumers. But consumer businesses are hard to start (unless you get on Shark Tank - read my blog about that), the customer acquisition cost can kill you. So, I've found that a better and easier place to look is in the businesses that surround you. Every business model is going to change as a result of technology, and you can be the one to bring those changes to them.
Third, add a little creativity. This is the most overrated part of the problem. It's really about combining things that you already see: problems plus new technologies. But, be warned, before committing to an invention, you need, like Edison, to prove the financial viability of the idea. Business is, after all, about making money, and you need to prove that your idea helps the business (your new customer) to make money. Edison's goal was to replace gas lighting. And, he knew that in order to do so, he would need generation, distribution and lighting. And, only if he could do it viably from a price and performance perspective, would he have a viable business.
And that brings us to number four. You need to start with the hardest part first. In Edison's case, it was to build a reliable inexpensive electric light. He had confidence that generation and distribution were solvable problems. And, don't believe for a minute, that you, the inventor, need to be an expert in any one field. That's not your job. You're the orchestra leader, the entrepreneur, and your job is to bring together the resources to meet a need.
So, go out there and invent something.