Even now, we picture a lightbulb.
You would think after coming up with the personal computer, the Internet and wireless communication devices that our culture would have upgraded the universal symbol for inspiration. But no. There is the lightbulb, popping up in the little balloons above
comic strip characters’ heads. It’s also the dominant image on the cover of Uncle Tungsten, a memoir by the renowned scientist Oliver Sacks. The cover of this month’s National Post Business — which has a feature on innovation — shows a man’s head connected to about five bulbs, making him look like a sort of chandelier. Perhaps we’re attracted to the lightbulb because it so effectively captures our thought process — from uncertain darkness to the brilliant light that leads the way to progress. The activation of a light bulb is our visual cue for the breakthrough idea, where innovation begins.
People in the industry have been talking a lot about innovation recently, particularly their contributions to Industry Minister Allan Rock’s Innovation Strategy. The call for submissions was a few months ago, and the responses have come in from the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, private industry and individuals. Some of their suggestions on how Canada can foster a more innovative culture include tax incentives and policy changes that would govern intellectual property. While many of these are well founded, I propose the country go deeper by exploring the way innovators come up with their ideas in the first place.
In his recent book The Eureka Effect: The Art and Logic of Breakthrough Thinking, David Perkins takes a look at some of the most famous moments in history where the proverbial light bulb has gone off. These include Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the Wright brothers’ development of air travel, and the ancient tale of Archimedes’ search for a way to measure the amount of gold in his king’s crown. (Archimedes’ solution led to the word eureka — “”I found it!””– which is the linguistic counterpart to the light bulb.)
These tales of genius seem out of reach for most people, but Perkins uses the book to examine the ways we might train ourselves to achieve similar moments of insight. Perkins notes, for example, that most breakthrough innovations follow a similar pattern. The problem solver often takes a long time in search of a solution. This time may look like a long period of inactivity capped with a sudden burst of revelation — what he calls a “”cognitive snap”” — where the answer becomes clear. To take this concept further, the Eureka Effect challenges the readers with a series of “”insight problems.”” These are written out like the sort of math problems you may have had in school: “”A man marries 10 women in a small town. None of them die, and he divorces none of them, but he isn’t breaking any polygamy laws. How can this be?”” When most people hear the answer (the man was a minister) they claim it’s a trick question. However Perkins argues that these sorts of brain-teasers are an example of the broader perspective needed to crack more complex conundrums.
Number problems usually send me fleeing, but I was surprised, by the end of the book, how many of the problems I was able to solve using the principles Perkins explained. These exercises reminded me of my university days, when all journalism students were forced to take a class in critical thinking skills. There we studied the components of syllogisms and how to deconstruct an argument. Many of us considered this class an affront — we thought we already knew how to think.
If we are really interested in innovation, however, we may need to integrate the principles of breakthrough logic into our educational system for the next generation of knowledge workers. Though there are going to be limits to the links between cognitive theory and our ability to train our brains, they are limits worth testing. As a country, we have recognized that great ideas are hard to find. Why not change the way we seek?