Blog: Innovation

By Jon Webster

If you hear the following words in your house, be very very afraid. “I want to be an inventor when I grow up!” We’ve all heard that one. Inventors are the guys that change the world and make a billion dollars in the process, right? A noble and, frankly, lucrative ambition for any Matipo student.
But I don’t think so.

I hate to burst your bubble, but inventors are the guys who desperately cling to the dream that their hair-brain nutso machine in the basement will change the world. And sure, just occasionally it will, but most likely, the billionaire world-changers aren’t inventors…they’re innovators. Since most people confuse the two, or assume they’re interchangeable, a short history lesson is in order. Pay attention, I may be testing you later…

In the late nineteenth century, two geniuses were pushing the boundaries of electricity and what you could usefully do with it. One was an inventor – Nikola Tesla – who’d arrived in the USA from Serbia, and was quite literally shocking the scientific community with his incredible devices and inventions. His ideas were revolutionary, and in hindsight, way ahead of their time. He also spoke eight languages fluently, suffered from OCD, had a terrible phobia about germs, and was so revolted by jewellery, he’d throw up at the sight of pearls. I’m not making this up, honestly. He also developed Alternating Current, which should have made him a fortune. But he died owing huge debts.

The other genius you are more likely to have heard of. His name was Thomas Edison, Tesla’s bitter rival, but unlike the Serb, Edison was also an innovator as well as an inventor. Edison’s inventions were as new and shiny as Tesla’s, but he turned those inventions into ideas that the world accepted and really really wanted. And would pay for! There’s a reason those Edison Screw light bulbs they sell in Mitre 10 are named after him. His light bulb design was so clever and innovative, it is still around over 100 years later. You may have dimly heard of the record player and the movie camera. Yup, they’re Edison’s too, along with a bewildering array of other innovations…

So the crucial difference here, is that Edison created innovations, ideas that caught on, that changed the world, and that were commercially successful. Tesla created inventions – brilliant, undoubtedly, but it took someone else to profit from his genius.

So what’s the point? Well the argument here is that teaching students to be ‘inventive’ is going to result in brilliant ideas…and that’s about all. On the other hand, teaching students to be ‘innovative’ is going to result in brilliant ideas that will add value, change things for the better…maybe even change the world. It’s why ‘innovation’ is one of the Key Competencies in the latest National Curriculum. I’d suggest that encouraging innovation in our students will help create a future where NZ sells its ideas to the world, and at a healthy profit.

One more thing. I play football with a guy called Sean – well occasionally. When he’s not missing a complete sitter from six yards away, Sean is quite a busy chap. He’s the co-founder of Lanzatech – you may have seen him on the news last week. He’s the guy who’s worked out how to turn waste gases from steel mills, into ethanol fuel. Which is both clever, good for the planet…and very very lucrative. His story is here – http://tinyurl.com/3hzl3ro You want an example of the power of innovation, and why we should be teaching it? Look no further…

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