Horatio I. Davis
When we watch science fiction movies, and see all the incredible, futuristic technologies on the screen, many of us wonder when these technologies will be available: flying cars, spaceships, teleportation, and many others... Some of these innovations are just around the corner; however, some of them are centuries away.
Breakthroughs and innovations start with a very radical idea. They don’t try to improve a process or product; they often disrupt an existing solution or approach or displace an existing technology. This is a lesson to us: You don’t need to wait for others to shape your future.
Ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes a conversation, or reading a book, or even a dream  can be the source of innovation. Our daily activities are all part of the inventive process. In fact, the internet provides many sources of information and inspiration. One can easily search for related patents and research on how to improve the idea. An average internet user can easily access new tools and platforms to take courses online, ask questions, and get answers from experts. New online platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and edX  provide free and high quality educational content and tools. One can easily take courses from these platforms, educating themselves and developing new ideas and technologies.
Crowdsourcing is another alternative for finding an innovative solution to a problem. Many companies and organizations are now organizing innovation challenges, seeking ideas and products for problems in many scientific and engineering fields. This approach allows companies to access the world’s smartest people to help solve important technical, social, policy, and scientific challenges. Governments and large corporations are also offering incentives for large scale scientific and technological projects. A well-known example of this approach are XPRIZE challenges . The XPRIZE Foundation is organizing challenges to help solve difficult future problems. One of the challenges from XPRIZE is to build and launch a spacecraft that can carry three people 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface – and can do so twice in two weeks. Another space related challenge is to land safely on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters on the Lunar surface, and communicate two times with the Earth. These challenges are not only allowing companies to push the limits of science and technology, but also generating commercial and applied projects.
But back to you and your great new idea… Once you have your innovative idea on solid ground, the next step is to attract funding to bring your idea to life. There are many funding mechanisms today, including loans from banks, borrowing money from friends and family, angel investors, startup competitions, venture capital funding, and a new approach called “crowdfunding.” Crowdfunding is the process of collecting financing for a project or idea from a large number of (often anonymous) investors, each donating small amounts. The crowdfunding industry is expected to grow to $90 billion by 2020. There are many successful crowdfunding campaigns that raised over $1 million in less than 24 hours, for art pieces, movies, technological products, and video games. The highest reported funding campaign was for a project called Star Citizen, an online space video game that raised over $37 million . The crowdfunding platforms also help with the marketing, advertising, and social media reach for the ideas and products.
While it is possible to explain and attract funding with just the idea or concept of your innovation, it is important to have a functioning prototype to prove that the idea is real and it is possible to bring it to life. Prototyping is an important step for demonstrating your idea to others. With the developments in manufacturing and 3D printing, it is easier than ever to produce a prototype. Low cost 3D printing allows local manufacturing and prototyping. While 3D printing has existed for quite some time, it was for many years an expensive technology available only to larger companies. New technological developments make it available and affordable for personal use. One can easily design or download a 3D model of a product, and print at home for testing and everyday use. Many printing stores now accept online orders for 3D print jobs . 3D printing can make easy for innovators to produce a prototype of their products and test before starting fundraising process and mass production.
The current level of 3D printer technology allows printing mostly for non-electronic components of a product. For electronic components and computing units of prototypes, open source electronics platforms are useful. There are many platforms that allow hardware developers to prototype their projects using electronics, sensors, actuators, and motors. Hackers, artists, designers, and hobbyists have produced many interactive and interesting projects. Would you like to have your coffee pot send you a tweet when the coffee is ready? Receive an SMS when there is mail in your physical mailbox? What about an auto-lacing shoe? These are all made possible using open source electronic projects. What is great about all of these projects is that the developers share all necessary steps and details of the their projects for easy replication by interested users.
Innovation is not limited to physical products and hardware. One can easily develop a mobile app to improve a traditional business or disrupt an industry. Smartphones and innovative app ideas are changing the way we get a taxi (Uber), book a room (Airbnb), check the price of a product (Amazon), and share-a-ride (Lyft). Uber introduced a smartphone app to allow passengers to book the nearest “taxi” and track the vehicle on a map. Users can make payments with their preloaded credit card information. The Lyft mobile app facilitates ride-sharing by enabling passengers to request a ride from other users nearby who have a car, in exchange for a small fee. Airbnb allows people to rent their private rooms, apartments, homes, and other properties to other users seeking lodging. The Amazon price check app disrupts the retail business by allowing consumers to scan bar codes in local stores and compare prices and order directly from Amazon.
Most of these new approaches were made available by the introduction of smart phones and mobile technologies. The total number of smartphones in the world is over 2 billion. One can develop a small game and reach 20 million users, a relatively small percentage of the worldwide smartphone users, in a single day. For a product or a service, reaching 20 million customers in one day is a great achievement. With new software platforms, it is easier to develop a smartphone application that works on many platforms. These software tools even allow developers to use easier web technologies to program the app. It is becoming a straightforward process to bring an idea to life, especially in software products and services. With all these new tools and services, innovation is getting easier than ever.
While having a novel idea is an important step for innovation, education and hard work are critical for success. Through education, we can inspire new generations to come up with innovative ideas that can change the world. Thomas Edison, famous inventor with over 1000 patents, regarded success as “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Through dedication, failure can be viewed as another opportunity to learn something new. As Edison said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
- Halil I. Demir, ‘Religious Inspirations and Scientific Inventions’, Fountain Magazine, Issue 89 / September - October 2012.
- Alex Usher, ‘The Future of MOOCs: Coursera and EdX’, Higher Education Strategy Associates, November 19, 2013.
- XPRIZE Scientific and Technological Challenges, http://xprize.org
- Ryan Fleming, ‘Star Citizen destroys all crowdfunding records, hits $37 million’, Digital Trends, January 22, 2014.
- Dominic Basulto, ‘How 3D printing could transform Amazon and online shopping’, March 13, 2014.