Book Review: “Inventology” by Pagan Kennedy

Inventology by Pagan Kennedy

Kennedy has pursued the question of what invention is, how invention happens, how inventors do it. This book summarizes a lot of what she has learned in her research.

Kennedy works two main themes, looking at the history of inventions and inventors, and how digital technology has changed the game. These themes are mixed together, and in the case of contemporary inventors, earlier life is compared to today.

Many of Kennedy’s stories are famous and familiar, though she adds a number of interesting details from interviews and little know historical material such as early experimentation using psychedelic drugs to spur creative problem solving, and the eccentric life of Russian thinker Genrich Alshuller.

I’m not sure that the book lives up to the subtitle, “How We Dream Up things That Change The World”—there is no clear one way invention works. But we do get some ideas about what may help or hinder. This book helps us understand why these things “work”, and what is important about them.

If one barrier to “invention” is inability to break out of previous thinking, then constraining organizations will only hurt. From this perspective, various kinds of crowdsourcing have great potential, simply because they can draw people who have a variety of “previous thinking”, increasing the possibility of finding an unexpected solution. So, Kennedy considers InnoCentive and other similar services to be a really good idea.

Not surprisingly, Kennedy loves maker spaces, fab labs, and such. Putting the tools in the hands of the workers broadens who can invent and how well they can invent. These spaces are also “zones of permission”, where we are invited to try things.

I would say that the “serendipity” found in coworking spaces also addresses this aspect of creativity. Working together, but not restrained by a single commanding organization, a coworking space is a “zone of permission”.

Kennedy also finds services like KickStarter to be really valuable, as well. While quick access to moderate amounts of funding is helpful, the quick feedback may be even more important. If your Kickstarter campaign bombs, you get a clear indication that your idea is off, and vice versa. Since the majority of Kickstarter campaigns fail, it seems to be succeeding in this role very well!

One thing that Kennedy’s review does not support is the current fad for “hackathons”, where people are brought together for a day or two intense design and prototyping. Hackers are typically asked to bring nothing to the contest, to pick a problem and come up with a creative solution (and potentially commercial product), and whack together a prototype – all within a short all nighter.

Kennedy shows that invention comes from understanding problems—often from an uncommon perspective—and thinking long and hard about what a potential solution might look like. The former is a form of filtering on what needs to be solved, and the latter is a form of mental visualization and “time travel”. Whether the solution comes from a new idea, or from discovering a new use for an old idea, working it out takes long, hard work. The first try generally doesn’t work, and it might take many iterations to get the idea worked out.

In a hackathon, a group of people (often students) come together cold to a problem, spend only a few hours thinking about a solution, and then whip up a first try at a prototype solution. A hackathon certainly is a zone of permission (though the pressure to have a viable product idea is rather constraining), but it is not a formula for invention. Indeed, most products of Hackathons are poorly designed solutions to the trivial “problems” of college students (how many apps do we need to help us pick a local restaurant?)

Hackathons may be fun, and they are a cool recruiting tool for organizations wanting to scope out young talent. But Kennedy’s book helps us understand why they produce such low-grade results. Not enough understanding a out either the problem or the solution, and not enough time to tinker toward a working solution.

While an effective “Inventology” may be elusive, Kennedy gives us some valuable insight into this hot topic.


  1. Pagan Kennedy, Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change The World, Boston, Houghton Miffin Harcourt, 2016.


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