Arthur Molella, Lemelson Center Director
As I write this column, we are living in a period of uncertainty and danger. The tone of the times is negative (war, threats of terrorism, a stalled economy), and much of the news highlights the perils of technology. Yet some of what I have recently read and heard has instilled in me a certain sense of positive anticipation--positive, in that it gives me hope about the uses of technology and invention to address some of our current dilemmas.
A recent article in the New York Times ("Dot-Com Saviors, Tilting at the World's Ills," March 16, 2003) described a new altruistic mood among high-tech entrepreneurs. Chastened by the bursting of the market bubble and the worsening world situation, they are directing their business and inventive talents toward launching socially aware projects for global good. Instead of focusing solely on financial gain, this new crop of entrepreneurs is seeking social returns.
|Sally Fox's naturally colored cotton eliminates the need for polluting chemical dyes. Photo by Cary Wolinski, courtesy of Vreseis Ltd. and FoxFibre®.|
Over the past year, I've met a number of such socially aware entrepreneurs, as well experts, scientists, historians of technology, and others interested in inventing for the public good. Last December, for example, the Lemelson Center hosted an international gathering of experts on the subject of "Inventing for Humanity;" to explore applying invention and technology systematically for the benefit of society. The discussion of historical precedents included examples from medicine (efforts to eradicate polio and smallpox), as well as collaborative efforts to solve global problems in areas such as public health (formation of boards of health in the 19th century), agriculture (green revolution), economic development (formation of the World Bank), and the environment (methods for controlling air pollution).
What struck me most was the participants' idealism--albeit tempered by the realities of practice and history--as they addressed urgent problems in these areas. Similarly, I was encouraged by the enthusiasm of teachers and students at a follow-up panel session entitled "Inventing for a Better World" at the annual meeting of our sister organization, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. Focusing on global health, the panel brought together the perspectives of public policy experts, historians, and practitioners who had developed innovative approaches to the urgent need for clean, safe drinking water.
Panel Moderator Jeffery Sturchio from Merck & Co., Inc., made this critical observation: "Conceiving, developing, and implementing new technologies that can make a difference in the lives of those who are desperately poor must be done in a way that's sensitive to their social, cultural, economic, and political contexts."
Very soon to appear is the Lemelson Center's book Inventing for the Environment, the first in its series on invention with MIT Press. It is full of stories of surprise and tempered dreams. Yet undergirding it is a belief that socially aware inventors and innovators hold one of the important keys to a better future, a belief that we try to cultivate through our publications and programs.
Through our Innovative Lives program, the Lemelson Center has been privileged to introduce young people to inventors who take this belief to heart. Middle school students have met inventors Ashok Gadgil, whose water purification device makes clean water not just available but affordable in developing countries; Sally Fox, whose naturally colored cotton obviates the need for polluting chemical dyes; and Subhendu Guha, whose solar roofing shingles promise to reduce dependence on dwindling energy sources. All have shared their stories with students. Introducing young minds, eager to learn what they might do for the future of our world, to such visionary yet practical inventors can only nurture the idea of inventing for humanity.
Originally published in Spring 2003.