Even for Dean Kamen, inventor of groundbreaking products like the Segway, the IBOT wheelchair, the first drug infusion pump, a water purifier, robotic arms, and more, it’s quite difficult to talk about and define innovation.
Speaking at the ICRA/IEEE robotics conference in Seattle on Friday, Kamen shared his thoughts on what innovation really means in today’s world.
“Innovation isn’t about technology alone,” Kamen said. “Innovation is the intersection of the appropriate technology for a real need that has never been made before. If the need is very real and the technology really works and it gets adopted in the world, it’s called innovation.
“A lot of people that are not technical think innovation is the technical stuff that those crazy geeks do in a corner,” he continued. “It’s not that simple.”
Kamen stressed that technologists should focus not only on finding the right technology, but perhaps more importantly, finding the right problem.
“I know a lot of people here love to play with technology because it’s fun,” he said. “But I have a lot of trouble, frankly, thinking that smart people with a gift of a great education spend all their time making Angry Birds. I think we as a technology community owe it to the world to take these powerful tools and apply them to critical problems.”
During his 45-minute keynote, Kamen explained how he and his team at Deka Research came up with solutions like the AutoSyringe, which provides insulin delivery for diabetics requiring continuous low doses of medicine, and the DEKA Arm, which gives people with upper extremity amputations a robotic arm replacement.
He noted that it’s important for innovators to be willing to fail, and to borrow ideas from industries they aren’t really familiar with — particularly when creating something that’s more than an incremental improvement.
“The next time you have a tough problem, don’t go to the obvious people to solve it — go to someone different,” Kamen said.
The best innovators will face adversity and plenty of naysayers, Kamen added, but that’s how it should be.
“If people don’t think you’re nuts, you’re probably not on the edge of innovation and just making something maybe a little bit better,” he said.
Kamen is also the founder of FIRST Robotics, a non-profit organization that he started in 1989 to help encourage more students to pursue science and technology. FIRST has grown immensely since its inception and now helps more than 400,000 students from 41,000 schools around the globe participate in robotic competitions hosted at massive arenas normally reserved for sporting events and concerts.
To encourage more students to become innovators that fix today’s problems, Kamen said that it’s about a cultural change — one that celebrates the top scientists and engineers in the same way society treats the best athletes and entertainers.
He added that the students need technologists to provide advice and support.
“These kids have the energy and passion and they want to do things, but they don’t have the judgement about what’s important to do and what, in the long run, really matters,” Kamen said. “I don’t think they get up in the morning and want to play mindless games because it’s mindless — they do it because it’s easy.
“Solving real problems takes a lot of time and energy. It’s maybe not the most obvious thing for a company to do or a kid to get involved in. We need serious technologists, professors, teachers, and parents who are willing to spend time to make it clear to kids that if they develop the right skill-sets and the right passions, and they are willing to work hard, they can be part of the very small group of people on this planet that will really make the world a sustainable, better place. If you are not out there to do that, I don’t think any of us have the right to complain about what’s going to happen because we deserve what we got.”