“Inventors’ Inbox”

I’m a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and a Chartered Engineer. My views on membership are controversial, in that I believe there is a strong case to be made for strictly limiting access to use of the title Engineer, in order to boost fee rates…exactly what the sawbones and ambulance chasers have done forever (and teachers, for example, have failed to do).

It therefore isn’t surprising that lawyers and medics are highly paid, whilst Engineers generally aren’t (or at least not for practising Engineering). We need many fewer people at the highest level within the profession, rather than recruiting truckloads of mediocre students to do uncreative, low-level degrees -and then allowing anyone, including car mechanics and drain diggers, to use the title anyway.

It’s time for Engineers to stop thinking of themselves as employees and encourage them to be leaders.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

ETB report outlines crisis in UK engineering
Unemployment amongst engineering and technology graduates is persistently higher than the average for other subjects, reveals a report by the Engineering and Technology Board.

The report sums up recent trends in the science and engineering workforce. It warns that engineering graduates are regularly lost to city careers, women are still not being attracted to SET studies and that international visitors outnumber British students on postgraduate engineering courses. The crisis is particularly acute in electronic and electrical engineering, where UK-based enrolment has more than halved since the early part of the decade.

The board also warns that unless the UK is unlikely to reach it target of a 2.5 per cent R&D spend as part of the Lisbon strategy unless more public and private investment are attracted and productivity is increased.

Anyway, Mark Sheahan and I write this column for the IET Magazine. Sometimes he manages to turn my imaginings into practical products.

Knowledge vs “IP”

There is an article on this subject here which highlights the absurdity that is IP. It’s better expressed, via examples, than I could ever manage:

“Fundamentally, the stuff we call “intellectual property” is just knowledge – ideas, words, tunes, blueprints, identifiers, secrets, databases. This stuff is similar to property in some ways: it can be valuable, and sometimes you need toinvest a lot of money and labour into its development to realise that value.

But it is also dissimilar from property in equally important ways. Most of all, it is not inherently “exclusive”. If you trespass on my flat, I can throw you out (exclude you from my home). If you steal my car, I can take it back (exclude you from my car). But once you know my song, once you read my book, once you see my movie, it leaves my control. Short of a round of electroconvulsive therapy, I can’t get you to un-know the sentences you’ve just read here.”

In this context, I think it may be appropriate to include the text of an email received by Richard Stallman, last year:

” Your site is an interesting one. Some of the ideas seem useful; some of them are amusing, and would qualify as chindogu. (Look that up on wikipedia.org.)

However, it’s really very bad to use the term “intellectual property” to describe what this is about. That term doesn’t have a coherent meaning; it is an overgeneralization that covers up confusion and makes it appear meaningful. Whoever the term “intellectual property” is typically either confused or trying to confuse others.

One of your posts, a few items down from the top, was about the patent system. It speaks of “a share of the IP”. Do you mean “a share of any income from patent licenses”? If so, would you please correct it to say that, and thus avoid the term “IP”?
See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/not-ipr.html for more explanation of this problem.
Worse, it seems to me that by demanding secrecy to create monopoly, the patent system is seriously damaging innovation.

I agree. I just made a link to
http://cepr.net/publications/drug_patent_alternatives_2004_09.htm which explains just how bad this is.

The article used to have a different URL which used the term “intellectual property”, but I convinced the author to change it so as to avoid that term. He changed it today 😉 . “



And here’s a view from Arthur C Clarke, just before his recent death:

“I’m often asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, ‘A patent is really a license to be sued.’ “

Rise of the Creative Class

I was reading some brochure material from the Glasgow School of Art recently (superbly creative people, but I think they need some serious organisation). Anyway, I came across this inspiring quote from a Professor Richard Florida

Creativity is now the decisive source of competitive advantage. In virtually every industry, from autombiles to fashion, food products and information technology itself, the winners in the long run are those who can create and keep creating…creativity has come to be the most highly prized commodity in our economy.

I think he’s right although, sadly, many of our organisations and businesses don’t think in the long term. Those that do, tend to prosper.

The Curse of Knowledge

When it’s time to accomplish a task (open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance) those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

This article, in the New York Times, is a good introduction the idea of ‘zero-gravity thinking’: when a company invites in an outsider who is smart and creative -and bold enough to ask the really fundamental questions about their products and processes.

This is one of the services which I provide to organisations that have become mired in their own expertise.

Contact me via pra@patrickandrews.com to escape from outdated patterns of thinking.

‘Efficient’ invention

Research and Development… they’re essentially the same thing, aren’t they (“Arrandee”)? Well, no…and failing to make the distinction is costing a fortune.

1. Research is about investigating nature by thinking up and actually doing experiments (disproving and improving theories). You can’t plan scientific research any farther than the next experiment. It’s literally like playing a game in which imagination guides your next move. Werner Von Braun said research was what he was doing when he didn’t know what he was doing. Invention has essentially the same character. As companies like 3M have begun to discover, you can’t necessarily generate a brilliant idea today just because it appears on some project plan. The more pressure you put on people, the more they generate only derivative results.

2. Development (a.k.a. Technology, Engineering) is about applying research results in a highly controlled way to deliver some benefit to people. This can and should be planned. You can apply your Six Sigma methodology or whatever to Development and it can reap huge benefits in terms of heightened efficiencies and quality.

These two activities are fundamentally different, even if the world is full of people who can’t be bothered to understand that. My working definition is that if a solution to your current problem is known to exist and you seek an improvement or efficiency increase, then you are doing engineering or development work. If no solution is known to exist, then it’s research.

The reason that this matters is that it is possible to invest a massive amount of money in a development project only to discover that it contains a research question hidden within it. At that point, the plan is derailed, because you have to start doing experiments -a haphazard, stumbling process with many blind alleys. The good news is that research is the only known process for gaining really big advances.

People who demand budgetary estimates or deliverables in connection with a research project (or an inventive task) are unaware of the true nature of the endeavour.

There are, however, some ways in which the mysterious process of invention can be improved and supported. Here are some techniques I seem to use.

  • introduce asymmetry e.g. everyone is not the same, so why should we all have the same seats provided?
  • look at stuff that’s “always” true (people walk forward) and challenge that
  • concentrate on real problems. They are sometimes hard to find because we just take it for granted that certain things are always going to be with us
  • as you wake up, pause and relax into a state of semiconscious reflection: it seems to disable that internal voice which usually says, “that’s a stupid idea”…invention seems to start as a right-brain, holistic thing.
  • look at things from a different perspective eg underneath or from space
  • improve on a good idea, eg velcro (what if it could also generate static sparks for illumination purposes?)
  • combine old and new approaches…sometimes reversion to paper and clockwork can yield a great idea
  • sometimes, just changing quantity can have a qualitative effect (eg twin-engine planes are safer than single-engine ones by a factor >>2)
  • spot ‘metaphors‘ eg a laptop is superficially like a book, so why can’t we have a multiscreen laptop, analogous to pages?
  • go to new places, experience new things…it seems to make useful connections, behind the scenes
  • only a small fraction of ideas will ever be any use: so have lots.

Actually, it was Linus Pauling, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, who said, “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”

I’ll be attempting to add to this list as I become more aware of how the mechanisms of inventiveness may work.

Here are some techniques for better ideas generation.

This NYT article talks about how epiphanies occur only after prolongued grinding away at hard problems. Personally, I think that somehow conscious work on a problem activates the unconscious mechanisms that actually deliver valuable results. It’s certainly true that many ideas will be crazy, but if you overrule the crazy ones internally, the good ones get suppressed too.

IP-claim jumping?

I’m always discouraged by my friendly neighbourhood patent attorney from revealing details of any intellectual property I’ve created before the related patent has been granted in every major country.So I tell him, get real. The whole patents thing is a take-on, hence this website. Most people can’t afford to apply for a patent, still less to defend it in the courts, if it were ever granted. (To his credit, my patent attorney only became one when he came second in the It’s-A-Knock-Out to be Europe’s first astronaut, so he has a very different internal model of risk than his profession would approve of).There’s an argument that runs “if we don’t allow people a period of monopoly, a clear run at exploiting their idea, then why should anyone bother to invent anything?”. It seems to me that this misses the point about inventiveness entirely. People who can invent new things are pretty well compelled to do so. They will invent in any case. Even the threat of being humiliated for having “lost out on a vast fortune” wouldn’t be enough to stop them. The inventor is always going to be at least one stage ahead of any copyists.If anything is stifling invention, it’s the legal process surrounding it. The people who own and run the legal business don’t really have a clue about invention: it’s just not what they do. To suggest that inventors and small companies somehow benefit from patent protection is disingenuous nonsense: they can’t afford it and the scrabble to sign up big partner companies who can help with the costs, forces people into making bad deals. The current charge for a lawyer who knows anything about IP is way over £300 per hour. That’s for someone who can understand something which is carefully explained to him, not some super genius.

Even big companies often choose not to patent ideas in favour of selling know-how based products and avoiding publishing anything via the patent process.

I guess I’m saying that we need to apply some serious creativity to reform the system -it’s now just too feeble, costly and slow. Given that no law lords read this site, the chances of that happening are, however, slim : (

There have recently been moves towards using government prizes instead of patents to help promote innovation.