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More on Operations Research in the Air

The New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “In the Air” had a second theme (I talked about the first theme: the multiple near-simultaneous discovery of inventions): the engineering of the sorts of insights that lead to invention. Can you create an environment where invention occurs?

The typical picture of an inventor is an obsessed loner wandering around until a lightening bolt strikes and the inventor puts it all together. Nathan Myhrvold, who made a fortune at Microsoft, thought that perhaps he could made invention and creativity happen. He did this by bringing together bunches of smart people, giving them broad topics, and seeing what resulted. And lots happened:

How useful is it to have a group of really smart people brainstorm for a day? When Myhrvold started out, his expectations were modest. Although he wanted insights like Alexander Graham Bell’s, Bell was clearly one in a million, a genius who went on to have ideas in an extraordinary number of areas—sound recording, flight, lasers, tetrahedral construction, and hydrofoil boats, to name a few. The telephone was his obsession. He approached it from a unique perspective, that of a speech therapist. He had put in years of preparation before that moment by the Grand River, and it was impossible to know what unconscious associations triggered his great insight. Invention has its own algorithm: genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination. How can you put that in a bottle?

But then, in August of 2003, I.V. held its first invention session, and it was a revelation. “Afterward, Nathan kept saying, ‘There are so many inventions,’ ” Wood recalled. “He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like.”

The original expectation was that I.V. [Intellectual Ventures, a company formed by Myhrvold] would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. “So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

This is exactly the environment we would love to have in universities. Once in a while, when a group of faculty get together there is an environment of creativity and excitement. Most of the time, we whine about the administration.

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  1. […] Michael Trick pointed out an interesting article In the Air published in the New Yorker. One of the themes in this article was related to the creation of environments leading to inventions. Check out the post on Michael Trick’s OR Blog here, and the original article here. […]