Innovation: The magic formula

Is innovation science, art, or a combination of both?

Sue IronsideNew Zealand has a proud history of innovation and invention. We’ve led the world in patent applications per capita and our distance from other countries has often meant that we have to either make do, or go without.

Whether you believe in the ‘number eight wire” mentality, or think that it is the stuff of myth and legend, there’s no escaping the reality that our collective achievement is due to outstanding creative, inquisitive individuals. On World Intellectual Property Day, we’re celebrating some of New Zealand’s best.

Norma McCulloch – one of New Zealand’s most accomplished inventors, enjoyed international commercial success. Her inventions ranged from a vacuum pump to take the air out of freezer bags, to a portable resuscitator for which she was named as one of the world’s top 10 women innovators, a modular ensuite bathroom and a concrete tubing system help reduce river bank erosion and flooding. She put her mind to solving problems and aside from inventing her creative outlets included painting and writing children’s books.

Perhaps New Zealand’s most un-heralded innovator is pharmacist and veterinarian Colin Murdoch. Despite international accolades Murdoch is not well known at home. His inventions included the tranquiliser gun, the child-proof medicine container and the disposable hypodermic syringe. Modern medicine would be unimaginable without the use of one-time syringes. It was Murdoch who recognised that cross infection rates could be eliminated by using disposable syringes. Sadly, despite the widespread use of his inventions, Murdoch never got rich. An altruist to the end, he preferred not to sue for patent violation.

Inspired by aviation pioneer Richard Pearse, motor racing legend Bruce McLaren, Bill Hamilton of Hamilton Jet Boat fame and world record holding motorcyclist Burt Munro, it’s no wonder that John Britten made his mark in designing super fast, super light, motorcycles that were ahead of their time. A qualified mechanical engineer, Britten’s early career involved mould and pattern design, metal spinning and mechanical engineering designs, all of which would serve him well in the Britten Motorcycle Company. The time Britten spent working as a fine artist it also evident in the Britten motorcycles, which are as beautiful as they are fast.

But is innovation science, or art? I would argue that it is both. Science plays an important role in innovation, and the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman recently noted that many of the most innovative new ideas emerged from early stage research.

As Gluckman says – “without the capacity to enquire we will impede the amount of innovation that can emerge. Simply put, successful patents are based on non-obviousness and novelty".

Perhaps most fundamental to the innovation process is imagination. As Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

So let’s embrace our creativity, our inquisitiveness and our ability to imagine. Who knows where it might take us?

Sue Ironside is the chair of Baldwins Intellectual Property.