Episode 73

innovation invention and survival

Sometimes, almost always, some version of the solution has already been invented. What are we going to remember that we already know how to do?

Let us take a mental tour of the Terrible Patents Division as we try to imagine- or re-imagine- sustainable solutions to some basic and persistent problems.

Transcript and notes:


Recorded 9 February 2023.


Hi, everyone. Thanks for tuning in.

I've been on a kick recently thinking about inventiveness, thinking about creativity, thinking about the ways in which we make things real. It keeps circling back around because I keep wanting to solve problems that everyone says can't be solved in the ways that I think they should be solvable. And I think it's because not enough people have spent enough time paging through terrible patent ideas in their spare time. Doesn't everyone do that?


Just me.

For example, I have been saying, and I will continue to say, that we need a way to make our existing two storey housing stock more accessible. Physically accessible. Accessible to people who can't do stairs. Accessible to people who can't move in the ways that those houses were designed for.

We need, obviously, wider doorways, wider hallways. We need, obviously, stoves that go up and down like a standing desk so that people standing and people sit and can use them. And those things exist. They're just expensive. But the problems that are really stumping are the problems of getting from one level to another. Again, we have that technology.

We have elevators, we have ramps. Ramps take a lot of space. Elevators- they're pretty good. You put yourself in the little box, you push a button, it takes you to the next level. That's great, as long as the electricity doesn't give out. But what else is possible? Many houses that have stairs do not really have space for an elevator also. In many cases, stairs make more sense for some people. In an emergency, stairs are really important. Or ramps. Something that operates without electricity, without all the systems being go. What do we do then?

So we can't just take out the stairs and replace them all with elevators, even if we could get funding to do that. Even if it were some kind of major federal initiative. Just a replacement doesn't work, we need something else. I was lying in bed one day thinking about this. And thinking about the several Facebook posts I've made about it and the several ways that those conversations have gone.

The thing about inventing is that we have to invent a whole bunch of bad stuff in order to come up with the good stuff. The number of terrible patents out there is astounding. But it's real, it's there. And it leads to things that change our lives. So the terrible patents department to solve this problem- and not just for wheelchair users. But also for people who can't walk up ramps, whose mobility issues don't match some of the other solutions.

The terrible patents department includes probably some kind of counterbalanced lever system. That's about as long as a stairway, but works more like an elevator. The terrible patents division probably involves some kind of ramp that wraps around the outside of the house. Only works in mild climates. Or you have to basically build a roof which is basically just building another layer of house around your house. Which is not impossible in most cases, but it is in some cases. And it sure would look different from what we're used to. And change adoption sometimes relies on making it look as much like what we're used to as possible.

So I was laying in bed thinking about this one night and I was like what about- what if- I don't know how much space they take up.... But what if? What if escalator, but residential? What if escalator but, it could hold different shapes? It could make little stairs but those movable panels are just movable panels. You could hinge them differently. It could make big stairs that are like three panels deep and three panels high. And just like, elevate someone to the right level. And then change shape and be stairs again. And how do we make that beautiful, and how do we actually make that viable? Because I don't know enough about escalators to know. And that's probably also part of the terrible patents division.

But I don't actually know that that's true. What I know is that we need to start thinking beyond what we already know. We need to start inventing beyond what we already know. And this is true in so many arenas. Look at clothing. Sometimes it means going back and picking up an old fashioned style, like lacing. Sometimes it means going even further back and picking up draping. Sometimes it means going forward and picking up something we haven't thought of yet. Sometimes it means merging what we had rent asunder.

Men's clothing and women's clothing is a ridiculous division. What we need is waist sizes, hip sizes, shoulder sizes, leg lengths. What we need is designs that celebrate every kind of body, not trying to make every kind of body one shape.

This morning, I was thinking about pleats. And how if you color the inside of the pleat differently from the outside of the pleat, then it really shows off the shape of the body that you put inside this straight-pleated garment. When we were in high school, my best friend borrowed her mom's dress. I don't even know how old it was. But it was like that. I don't remember whether it was black with white inside pleats, or white with inside black pleats. But it was vertically striped with this cloth that only took shape when you put a body in it. And then it showed where the body curved. It was brilliant. It was terrifying. I was in high school. But I wasn't the one wearing it.

Sometimes, almost always, some version of the solution has already been invented. Look at heating and cooling in hot, dry climates. Look at the wind towers from the ancient West Asian and South Asian cultures. Big tall tower, sucks in the wind, moves it along underground until it's cool. And then the force of the wind just blows it back up and out into the building, into vents. Air conditioning. No electricity. Sometimes it would blow along over a pool of water to help it cool further and to humidify it.

We don't need as much electricity-driven technology as we have. But we do need some. What are we going to invent? How are we going to solve these problems? What are we going to remember that we already know how to do?

When we decide that anything that we launch has to be remunerative, has to make money- has to make money for the inventor specifically- we second-class the good of the world. We second class our own survival. Collectively.

Can we get to a situation, can we get to a state where we believe that we all are responsible for the well being of us all? And that means that we support and care for everybody. So that everybody has what they need. So that when they have a really good idea, it can simply go about being born without worrying about whether it can feed the person who birthed it. Can we even imagine that world?

I think we have to imagine that world. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't survive. And it doesn't mean in this time between here and there, that we shouldn't or can't make money off of our ideas. It even doesn't mean that we shouldn't make money off of our ideas eventually. Or now. Or anytime.

But what it does mean is that we need to share more. We need to collaborate more. We need to sell more insulin patents for a dollar. The entitlement- the sense of entitlement to wealth is troubling. But more than troubling, it's stopping us from making the world a better place. What are we- as leaders, as business owners- what are we going to do about it?

Thanks for tuning in.

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Leela Sinha