In 2002, the Lemelson Foundation, which funds several programs including the Lemelson Center, launched an ambitious new international initiative. Its “Invention for Sustainable Development” program is designed to promote invention “to meet basic human needs and build sustainable livelihoods for the world’s poor,” as described on the Foundation’s website at lemelson.org. I was invited to participate in several planning sessions, including one at Costa Rica’s EARTH University, a private international university devoted to sustainable agriculture, and another involving a consortium of institutions, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (the latter ending just before the tsunami ravaged the neighboring island of Sumatra). These gatherings provided a rare opportunity to meet inventors from around the developing world, operating under widely diverse circumstances but facing similar economic, social, and political challenges. All of these inventors shared their essential motivations, a desire to improve the quality of life for themselves, their families, and societies, but most basically, an unquenchable enthusiasm for the act of inventing itself.
Beyond this shared impulse, however, were some surprising differences in circumstance. Even within the narrow geographic compass of the Central American isthmus, wide variations in social, cultural, and political climates for invention were displayed, or at least perceptions thereof. Honduran participants at the EARTH University workshop, for instance, identified an ingrained general resistance to change in Honduran society as a limiting factor on invention. Neighboring El Salvador, on the other hand, was held up as a model entrepreneurial culture, despite its poverty and recent history of violence. Cited examples of inventions and innovations from the latter nation included a low-temperature wood-burning stove and a robotic cart for detecting and collecting such dangerous materials as chemicals and land mines, technologies reflective of the particular needs of the region. That El Salvador has an annual award for innovation was also proudly noted.
A recurring theme of the Lemelson Center revolves around the basic question of how various societies, past and present, can nurture or, in some cases, can hinder innovation and inventors. Our first symposium, The Inventor and the Innovative Society (1995), ranged from Leonardo’s Renaissance Italy to Edison’s metropolitan New York and Frederick Terman’s Silicon Valley. One key finding was that societies strong on innovation also tend to generate vibrant arts communities. Now, ten years later, we will widen our lens to include the experiences of developing countries. Our international workshop on Cultures of Innovation, to be held in Washington, D.C. in May, will look across nations and cultures and encompass both, factors encouraging positive technical change and factors leading to resistance to innovation. Although it is difficult to predict results from this workshop, one can surely say that invention is an international theme with almost limitless variation. At the Lemelson Center, we look forward eagerly to encounters with invention’s infinite variety.
Originally published in Spring 2005.