Two of the world’s most respected inventors, Sir James Dyson and Dean Kamen, are among a small but growing group calling for the creation—or rather, the revival—of a culture where science, technology, and the return to making things is celebrated.
While Dyson’s name will likely be forever linked to the development of his now infamous bag-less vacuum cleaner, and Kamen’s to the invention of the infamous Segway, both men have used their considerable intellectual and manufacturing talent to try and create a more livable future.
‘Future’ is the operative word here; within our 24-hour news cycle the media’s barrage of impending doom from global warming, war and terrorism in the Middle East, food shortages, riots, or economic collapse, it’s enough to make you wonder what the next 100 years have in store for us.
No one really knows how the future will unfurl, but in 1972, British science fiction writer Geoffrey Hoyle tried to do just that when he released a relatively obscure book titled 2010: Living in the Future. In it he outlined his views of what the world would look like nearly four decades later. It was, as he wrote, “[…] one person’s idea of how people will live in the year 2010.”
Some of his ideas seem straight out of a bad science fiction movie—we don’t wear one-piece jumpsuits or have a series of underground, liquid-filled pipes delivering everything from a box of nails to a new car—yet some of his other predictions were eerily clairvoyant. He described a device similar to a home computer called a “vision desk” and foresaw the rise of the e-book.
His writing was also remarkably hopeful. He wrote of cities teeming with electric cars and free public transit, which in turn meant cities were free of toxic smog and other pollution. His ideas offered a stark contrast to the dystopian Orwellian futures envisioned by his science fiction peers in the Mad Max or Soylent Green films of the day.
Hoyle’s writing was clearly an ode to technological advancement, and based on the ideas contained in his book, he believed technology and new inventions would create a more prosperous world to live in.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way, though, as we are closer today to Mad Max’s reality than Geoffrey Hoyle’s.
Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. Check your pockets—chances are there is a tiny computer inside in the form of a cellphone or other mobile device with more processing power than the first super-computers that filled entire rooms.
Those computers in our pockets allow us to play games, make video calls around the world, and complete online banking with the push of a few buttons, and while that technology knows no bounds and has spread even to developing nations such as Africa—the second-largest mobile market in the world with more than 600m subscribers —the fact remains that millions more are still left without clean water or knowing where their next meal is going to come from.
It is a world of imbalance, and in the face of ever-pressing climate change and environmental degradation, many would suggest that technology is the one factor that can turn things around for us.
Dyson and Kamen understand that this world, and our place within it, is at a crossroad, and we are running out of time to move beyond our obsession with our digital selves and the desire to acquire more ‘stuff’.
“After 60 years of expansion, we seem to have reached a limit,” Dyson wrote in a June 2012 article for The Telegraph. “Or at least a point at which we are having to reconsider what it means to expand.”
Dyson argues that while the inventions of the 20th century—and I would argue the 19th century as well—were all about being bigger and better, 21st century inventions will need to be smaller and smarter if we are to survive.
“As fuel becomes ever more difficult to source, lightweight materials with unique properties are vital to innovation,” he writes.
Kamen shares those beliefs; at SXSW (South by Southwest) in Austin, Texas this past March he argued that as long as we continue to try to solve our 21st century problems with 19th century thinking, we’ve failed before we’ve even started.
And the timeline to get it right is shrinking.
“It’s like a race between technical achievement and catastrophe, and catastrophe could win,” he told the audience.
What’s behind this innovation stagnation? Just a few generations ago England, along with its western neighbours, was the engine that drove the Industrial Revolution: the “workshop of the world.”
Yet Dyson believes that with the shift in western ideals to a culture that favours bankers and businessmen over manufacturers and tinkerers, it has led to the decline of the innovative spirit.
“That's the problem—it's historical. It's in our schools, it's in our culture and it's in our government,” he said in an interview with Doug Saunders of the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper earlier this year.
He goes one step further to proclaim that the western world has lost the will to invent and innovate, leaving it up to other emerging countries like China and India to fill that void.
“The trouble with Britain is that it built its success on the riches of its empire, rather than building its success on a manufacturing economy—we went out to the empire and flogged them what products we had, and took their resources, and made money off it. There was no need to be the best.”
He also points out that just six percent of British graduates study engineering, compared to upwards of forty percent of grads from Singapore.
Failure is embedded in the very DNA of invention—a fact Dyson knows first-hand. The English industrial designer and engineer is perhaps best known for inventing the vacuum cleaner that bears his name, making him a household name across the globe and landing him on Forbes’ list of the richest people in the world with a net worth of about $1b.
Yet the Dyson vacuum didn’t happen overnight. Starting in 1978, it took five years and 5 127 prototypes for the world's first bag-less vacuum cleaner to arrive. And even after he developed the first working prototype, no manufacturer in his home country would touch it (vacuum bags were a $500m industry at the time ) so he had to take it to Japan.
In Dyson’s ideal world the ‘F’ word—failure—would lose all of its negative connotations and society would begin to encourage the next generation of inventors and builders through the slow process of trial-and-error. In fact he has said that he prefers to hire new grads who, in his mind, are ambitious, idealistic, and have no “fear of failure.”
“I've always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they've had,” said Dyson back in 2007. “The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.”
He’s using his considerable wealth to not only invent better devices, but to help inspire the next generation of inventors and designers as well. The James Dyson Award is an international university-level student design award run through Dyson’s charitable trust, the James Dyson Foundation, as part of his ongoing mission to encourage the next generation of engineers to be creative and invent.
The award includes a £10 000 grand prize for student of team of students, and another £10 000 for their university department.
“Inventiveness depends on inspiring bright young people to develop ideas and use their intelligence in a productive way, like making something work better,” Dyson says.
“Education can encourage engineers, and the government can help business—but to bring it all together we need a culture that celebrates design and invention.”
Edward Linacre, winner of the 2011 award, used the funds to develop and test what he called the Airdrop system, a sophisticated device that extracts water from the air and applies it directly to the roots of plants. The system could potentially relieve water and food pressures in drought-stricken countries the world over.
Before inventing the Segway PT, Kamen made a name for himself inventing life-saving medical devices such as the first wearable infusion pump while he was still a college undergraduate. Called the AutoSyringe, the device was quickly adopted for use in chemotherapy, neonatology, and endocrinology.
He has also worked on desalinisation pumps to turn undrinkable water from the ocean into potable water, as well as new solar panel designs.
Kamen, like Dyson, has seen this shift in the west away from a culture of inventiveness. In an era where creative classes like art, music, and wood shop are the first to experience cuts, teachers are forced to do much more for students, but with much, much less.
“You look at our culture, and know that teachers aren’t the problem,” Kamen said at SXSW.
“We have a culture problem, not an education problem.”
Kamen’s modus operandi is to reignite the culture of experimentation and entrepreneurship, and much like Dyson, he says a shift in our priorities is vital, particularly for kids.
“In a free culture you get the best of what you celebrate. We celebrate sports. We celebrate entertainment. We’ve got to get back to convincing—particularly women and minorities—that the world of science is every bit as accessible, every bit as rewarding, every bit as fun, and a whole lot more likely to lead to careers than anything else they can spend their time on.”
He takes that argument one step further on his website, writing “you have teenagers thinking they’re going to make millions as NBA stars when that’s not realistic for even one percent of them. Becoming a scientist or engineer is.”
Like Dyson, Kamen is also helping to fund future engineers and inventors. Through his organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), which he founded in 1989, more than 250 000 young people aged 6 to 18 in more than 50 countries around the world are able to experience and enjoy science and technology. High school aged students are also eligible to apply for more than $14m in scholarships from colleges, universities and corporations.
As the months and the years slip away, it is becoming more and more apparent that technology is going to need to bridge the gap between the 20th century lifestyle that got us where we are, and the 21st century thinking that will be required to ensure our long-term survival.
For Dyson and Kamen, that means re-inspiring the next crop of inventors and engineers, and they’re doing that through their respective foundations as well as their own continuing work.
Dyson was born in 1947, Kamen in 1951, and they grew up in an era of astonishing scientific advancement. The first human was launched into space in 1961, the same year the first Teflon non-stick pan was introduced to consumers. The ubiquitous computer mouse was first unveiled in 1968, and the Concord jet promised to revolutionize air travel when it broke the sound barrier in 1969—the same year that man first walked on the moon.
The home computer, the fax machine and the Internet would all follow in the years to come, many of them developed in the garages and basements of people just like Dyson and Kamen. It would have been hard to look around and not be inspired by what was going on in the world of technology.
In recent years we have seen a revival of the innovative and technological spirit that these two men have been calling out for. This so-called “Maker” movement—based on the do-it-yourself principle —stresses new and unique applications of technology, and encourages invention and prototyping.
This DIY maker movement is expanding beyond the boundaries of garages and basements around the world as new technology has allowed similarly-minded builders and manufacturers to find each other and collaborate together, and as the movement becomes more mainstream, so-called ‘hacker spaces’ have opened around the world, giving inventors the space and the freedom to tinker with their ideas and work with others to share their concepts and improve upon them.
While the maker movement has grown exponentially in recent years—there are now more than 1 100 hacker spaces around the world —it has yet to diffuse into mainstream culture with equal fervor.
Which is exactly what Dyson and Kamen are pushing for. They are seeking to reignite the culture of experimentation and entrepreneurship, and it’s time we all began to listen.
If the impetus for innovation is removed then a lot of benefit for society, inevitably, doesn't happen. Interest of the shareholders and society.