What is an Invention? How to Invent, and Develop Inventive Thinking?

Kemal Türker


What is an invention?
An invention is a phenomenon with the a repeatable function of creating something new and satisfying any kind of necessity, attained by curious people who do not fear failure, using agile and unconventional approaches, with the help of clues they notice by carefully observing nature, as well as courage, patience, rigor and teamwork.
Is inventiveness an innate ability, or can it be learned?
Human intelligence is an innate genetic character of all humans. However, intelligence alone is not enough for invention. Because the ability to invent is not genetic, but a function of intelligence that must be learned. Therefore, in order to be able to invent, you need to learn and develop the ability to think creatively.
What is inventive / creative thinking?
Creative thinking, or the ability to invent, is the art of devising new things or methods that are easier, more economical, healthier, faster, more precise, more powerful and more environment-friendly, using our imagination and knowledge. In other words, whenever you try to do something better, it turns into an act of creativity.
How can inventive / creative thinking be developed?

I have laid out the answer to this question in 11 parts below. Each of these ideas is as important as every other one, and they will help you develop your creative thinking.
Feel the necessity: “Necessity is the mother of invention”. If you do not require anything new, or any sort of new method, you cannot invent. Therefore, you have to first be aware of the fact that something new has to be developed; that innovation is necessary. Once you are, you have to carefully observe the thing that needs to be developed, and apply your imagination, knowledge and positive attitude to it, and work tirelessly at it without letting failures intimidate you.

An example of necessity: Employees at a workplace are not able to plan their time well, and as a consequence, many meetings start and end late, work efficiency suffers, and schedules cannot be met. You are aware of the situation, and believe that something needs to be done to fix things. Once you talk to the employees, you understand that their watches and desk clocks are not synchronized, and you observe that this is indeed the case by investigating. You brainstorm, thinking: “How can I make sure that every clock is synchronized?” and study all the ideas that are put forward, no matter how illogical. You are intrigued by the idea of displaying time as if it were the display of a radio receiver; you try to synchronize all clocks with centrally transmitted radio waves, and succeed. This invention (radio controlled clocks: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_clock) is now successfully deployed in almost half of the world. In many countries, desk clocks and even watches can easily be synchronized via radio waves. With this rather simple technique, the invention eliminates time discrepancies between persons and institutions, and facilitates communication.


Observe: Once you have admitted the necessity, the thing to do is very careful observation. You need to observe your surroundings very carefully, and try to think up how the things around you (tools, clothes, household items, etc.) can be made better. If what you have observed is a method for making or doing things, thinking up improvements to it can also lead you to new inventions.

An example of observation: You observe that on average, people in the society you live in are gradually getting fatter, and think that is necessary to change this situation, specifically starting with the children. Upon observing your surroundings carefully, you notice that children go to school by school buses. With those who think like you on this matter, you brainstorm, and carefully study the ideas that come up. You develop a project with your local municipality and the Ministry of Health to bring government subsidies to bicycle pricing and build more bicycle lanes, especially around schools. Possibly thanks to people who have thought along these lines, bicycle lanes have been built today in many countries, and many cities provide cheap or even free (for example, the deposit system in Aalborg, Denmark) bicycles to their residents.

In these cities, secure bicycle parking is provided in every school, workplace and shopping center to facilitate bicycle transportation. In Japan, fixed gear bicycles are very cheap, which encourages bicycle use. This may seem unfit to a country with rough terrain and cities with many ramps. But simple observation would reveal it this is actually an ingenious invention: with these cheap bicycles that young people can obtain very easily, they can climb hills, standing up to pedal strongly up the hill most of the time, therefore burning lots of calories. There are few better ways to raise fit and healthy people.


Be knowledgeable: “One cannot have ideas without having knowledge” (Uğur Mumcu). To invent things, you need to at least partially study the work that has been done in the relevant field. Knowing the matter in detail can sometimes limit the scope of ideas you can put forward, and thus hamper your invention. But if you want to invent in a field that you do not know in detail, you must definitely include knowledgeable people in the field in your brainstorming sessions.

An example of being knowledgeable: As trains travel back and forth on the same tracks in most countries, passengers frequently sit facing the opposite direction to that of the train, which leads to anxiety and nausea. You believe that it is necessary to prevent this in some way. With your observations, you build a good grasp of the situation. When brainstorming, you make sure that a representative from the company producing the trains, and an engineer who is thoroughly familiar with the seats in the train and the structure of the train cars attend your session.

You discuss the situation, and begin to come up with ideas. When going through the possible actions that may be taken to solve the problem, the question comes up of whether the seats can be easily rotated by everyone to face the direction that the train is traveling in. The engineer is consulted, the mechanism is built, and the problem is solved. Currently, in many countries, train seats can be rotated with a lever, by applying a small amount of force.

Brainstorm: Brainstorming lets you come up with new ways to solve problems, by breaking the rules you come out of the routines of thinking that you are accustomed to. There are routines we build up to get work done at home and at work. These are often referred to as habits. These habits are convenient in that they let people solve problems automatically, without having to apply much thought. However, habits have the consequence that people begin to think without evaluating the specific and changing conditions and new requirements that newly encountered problems come with. When facing new problems, inventive people should force themselves to break out of habits, and at least look at the problem from a different point of view. Brainstorming is a method where all ideas are welcome without the anxiety of criticism, which facilitates inventive thinking.
As an example, Anne G. Osborn has observed in her brainstorming sessions that every critique and assessment hampers the imagination of the participants. The production of ideas and their critique cannot happen at the same time. When brainstorming, it is crucial to provide a comfortable environment where unexpected ideas outside the routines can come up. The first thing to do is list all the ideas that are put forward without judging them. What matters here is the quantity, rather than the quality of the ideas. Usually, the first 20 to 30 ideas will be well known, therefore unhelpful ones. As the numbers grow, the possibility of new ideas coming up will increase

Be prepared for invention: “You can only get enough water from a waterfall to fill the cup in your hand”. This saying points to the different capacities of people to exploit opportunities. You must be ready to find new things, and to receive the new ideas that they will present to you. And in order to do this, you need to have studied the subject thoroughly, and made it part of your life. People, who read a book, watch a movie, encounter an event, can only understand it to their own limits, and can only deduce from it to the extent of their previous knowledge. If you do not have the necessary knowledge, you may not even be aware of your invention.

In a memoir, famous physicist Stephen Hawking recounts how he was disturbed by the idea of a student of his that black holes might actually let things out rather than swallow everything that approaches them, and how he wrote an article defending that this idea is not true. Because his student was not very sure (NOT prepared for the invention), he did not make the idea into an article. Just a few years later, Hawking proved mathematically that the idea his student put forward and he did not accept at the time (because he was not prepared for the invention) was correct, and stresses in his memoir that he was not fair to his student about this invention. This very invention later made Hawking famous with regard to the study of black holes.


Build empathy: In order to get to the bottom of a mater, you have to empathize with it to the extent that you become the subject / thing / matter itself. When you place yourself in its place, you will understand it much better. Constantin Stanislavksy, a master of Russian theater, said: “To express something in the best way possible, you should stop being yourself, and become the thing you want to express”. Therefore, imagining what you would feel if you were the thing / tool / method used to solve the problem, and what you would require, what you would find convenient and effective in such a scenario can be beneficial towards finding a solution.

An example of empathizing: You know that life is difficult for the blind, and you think that it is necessary to do something about this. You imagine that enabling them to practice sports easily and without danger can make their lives better in a small but meaningful way, and you begin to think of what you can do about this. Once you decide to build a tool to enable them to practice, you may first want to brainstorm with a group attended by athletes and blind people, and discuss the matter with someone who has designed tools for the blind before. But, as a designer, once you try to practice sports blindfolded, you may begin to realize how useful the ideas at the brainstorming session were. In other words, when you want to design something for the blind, being one of them for a while will tell you much about their requirements. After the experience of building empathy, you may, for example, come up with the idea of designing a treadmill for the blind which can be operated with speech commands.

Be imaginative: As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge, because while knowledge is what we currently know and understand, imagination covers all that we may possibly create and find out”. Imagination can sometimes take us to things that do not make sense. Again as put forward by Einstein, “If we all thought logically all the time, we could not have advanced past the Stone Age”. And again, as the great thinker said, “If a new idea does not sound crazy to you the first time you hear it, it is a hopeless one”. Having a bit of an odd edge is useful for inventive thinking. Maybe, to invent, you need to “become obsessed” with something. In this way, when you feel tired, sleepy or otherwise entirely relaxed, where your conscious thought and inhibitions are partially suppressed, you can come up with a revolutionary idea with regard to the matter you are obsessed with. You should immediately write down the odd and sometimes crazy ideas you get in such states.
An example of being imaginative:
Many things that we used to read as science fiction only 20 to 30 years ago have now become usable tools / methods today, such as James Bond's wireless watch (mobile phones), worldwide libraries (the WWW) and live imaging of the brain in operation (fMRI).
Ask questions: As Dr. Erdal Atabek once said, “One who has no questions, will not have any answers”. It is impossible to have new ideas and develop new methods without asking questions. Besides, in order to form a significant idea, you should ask many questions, some of which will naturally be illogical or even crazy. And you should make sure that the questions you ask about the subject you want to invent in are “open questions”. In other words, the question should not be descriptive; rather, it should be open-ended so as to lead the way to the creation of new ideas about the subject.
When asked “How can you design a comfortable chair?” your invention may be limited with the design of a new chair. An open way to ask the same question might be: “How can you design a comfortable place to relax?” The design that you arrive at by thinking around this open question may not be limited to a chair, and can raise many new questions, and lead to innovative ideas from your brainstorm team. What you design as a result can give rise to an invention on its own. Similarly, rather than “How can
you design a new bridge for İstanbul?”, asking “How can you improve the physical transportation of people living on the two sides of İstanbul?” may lead you to the best solution in this matter. As a result, you can come up with solutions such as underwater tunnels that do not destroy forests, better and increased marine transportation and reduction of the requirement of physical transportation thanks to new communication technologies.

Dare to break down the known, or what is thought to be known: According to Theodor Adorno, “Science needs the unreasonable”. The scientist should never rely on any known or accepted scientific rules or ideas; he/she should constantly question and criticize them, and be ready to bring them down if she can find their weak spots. As Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a product of our thinking, and therefore, we cannot change the world without changing our thinking”.

An example of daring to break down the known As it was assumed that the strong acids in the stomach would kill all the bacteria in the stomach, the scientific community across the world believed that bacteria did not play a role in ulcers and stomach cancer. But two scientists did not accept this hypothesis, kept looking for bacteria in stomachs filled with acids, and finally found them. Australian scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren revealed their ground-breaking invention in 1982, declaring that the bacterium they called Heliobacter pylori buried itself in the mucous membrane of the stomach so as not to be affected by the acids. It is known today that this bacterium causes many kinds of ulcers and cancer. This invention, which brought the two scientists the Nobel Prize, proves the importance of challenging the known and accepted ideas in invention.

Make a habit of producing new alternatives: In order to succeed in this, I advise that you make a habit of solving puzzles, attending seminars/conferences on subjects you know nothing about, talking to different people, taking different routes when going home and to work, and cooking different meals. In other words, avoid routine work and events whenever possible, in order to exercise your ability to produce alternatives.
Assume that you are given a lemon, and are asked how many different ways you can juice it in. Most of the methods suggested for such a mundane everyday task will be well known ones. But if you have a habit of producing alternatives, you can probably come up with hundreds of ideas, some of which will be new and unusual. When you eliminate the normal and expected ideas, the remaining ones can lead you to a new invention.
Encourage invention in your working environment: Creativity is not a personal matter; it has to do with the environment. Traditional workplaces have hierarchy and a disciplinary structure. Today, the concept of a more relaxed kind of workplace that encourages collaboration is developing. Many companies have understood that a quality workplace leads to better performance, and have begun to build a new kind of creative workplace. Every new workplace today must consider the environment as a space of creativity. An environment should be created where people can put forward their ideas and support each other without anxiety.
The habit of taking shortcuts in work, belittling the ideas of others, stress, physical overcrowding (of items, pictures, writings etc.) around the workplace, lack of environmental treatment to provide privacy of conversation are among the important reasons that hamper creative work in the workplace.
On the other hand, a leadership that can see the future, a “can-do” culture, constant support and awards, reduction of stress with a light-hearted and playful attitude to work, the culture of opting to “take risks, debate, oppose” rather than doing everything with the least risk possible, and the use of signs and messages to give shape to a creative environment will bolster inventive and creative thinking.
For example, in the middle of the university in the town of Adelaide in Australia, where I worked for 25 years, there was a sign that read: “What if...” Similar signs that encourage people to think outside the box are very useful for reminding people of the importance of inventiveness. A great example is Nasreddin Hodja's famous reply to those who laughed at him as he tried to ferment a lake: “What if it works?”



  • 1. Alex Fung, Alice Lo & Mamata N. Rao. Creative Tools, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University