The idea that great inventions stem from the minds of
individuals is not realistic, and it's caused many headaches for engineers.
Instead, they should team up with others and figure out how to leverage
existing products and concepts in new ways.
That was the message from Andrew Hargadon, director of the
Green Entrepreneurship Program at the University
of California, Davis,
who addressed attendees at NIWeek in Austin, TX,
on Aug. 7.
Though green initiatives were the theme at National
Instruments' annual gathering, Hargadon barely touched on the topic during his
keynote. Afterwards, he told Design News
that the key change this trend provides is to alter the flow of venture
"The green movement means that a lot of money is flowing in,
changing which innovations are rewarded," says Hargadon, who's also the author
Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about How Companies Innovate."
Regardless of what field engineers work in, they need to
work together with others to leverage technologies that are already around.
Though Thomas Edison, James Watt and Henry Ford are viewed as lone wolves, they
actually worked with strong partners or teams.
"Inventing is about connecting, taking pieces that are
already there and connecting them in different ways," Hargadon says. "Your best
opportunity to come up with ideas is not to lock yourself alone in a room but
to be out in the world, seeing what others are doing and use that in different ways."
Every great engineer has a partner. Steve Wozniak had Jobs, Edison had Charles Bachelor, Hargadon explains. Engineers
need to network with knowledgeable marketing and financial people. Without
marketing, even the greatest technology stands a good chance of remaining
Hargadon derided the adage that if you build a better
mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. "This saying has led many engineers
to their doom. It's fundamentally dangerous to assume that if you have a great
idea, somebody will care," Hargadon says.
Asked about the role patents play, he said they can both
help and hurt. "Patents can suppress innovation, but without protection, people
won't make investments," Hargadon says.
He also touched on the need to upgrade science and
engineering education. "We should be teaching everyone enough engineering that
they can understand the basics of technologies they may encounter," Hargadon
Underscoring his idea that innovation comes from using
existing ideas and technologies in novel ways, he used a popular quote by
author William Gibson: The future is already here, it's just unevenly
"Our job is to distribute it," Hargadon says.