The Spark of Invention

A Time/Qualcomm poll reveals a world of opinions about who inventors are, how they do their work and which countries used to be—and will be—the most inventive

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Illustration by Andrew B. Myers for TIME

All but the most traditional Western schools encourage inquiry, independent work and open debate, particularly about such nonempirical subjects as social sciences, literature and politics. It’s a messy way to learn, but it’s the system we’re used to. East Asian schools take a far harder, far tidier approach, stressing the muscle work of mastering large volumes of material and reproducing it from memory on frequent exams. Both methods provide kids with a fair enough education, but the Western model is widely thought to do a better job of also teaching them the simple art of thinking creatively.

“Consider how high schools are run,” says Geoffrey West, a professor and past president at the Santa Fe Institute, which studies complex systems. “In China and elsewhere in the East, students remain in the same classroom at the same desk all day long, while their instructors rotate in one after another to teach their lessons.” In the U.S., it’s controlled chaos, with kids hurrying all day between classes—some of which they choose themselves. “That creates a certain disorder, a flexibility, sense of choice and even flakiness.” For some students, West believes, that may help foster creative thought.

Protecting What’s Yours
Patents are another way of ­measuring a country’s creativity. Much of the focus of West’s recent work is on the dynamics of ­cities, particularly the way they scale up in size. Cities tend to grow in what’s known as a superlinear progression. Every time a metropolitan area doubles in population, it more than doubles in other indicators of socio­economic life—both good and bad. A city that’s 100% bigger than it was, say, 50 years ago will see increases, on average, of up to 115% in wages, jobs and construction projects and also in communicable disease, crime and poverty. “This originates in the increase in social interactions,” West says. “A major reason for the existence of cities is to bring people together to enhance the creation of artifacts, ideas and wealth—though that too can lead to problems and unintended consequences.”

A 2004 study West conducted with colleagues in Santa Fe and at Arizona State University showed that the superlinear rule holds for patents as well, with cities generating more patentable ideas per capita than less densely populated areas—and very large cities producing the most of all. This is especially so for cities that are big enough to have dedicated professional regions, like New York City’s financial, theater and diamond districts. “People agglomerate in these places so they can talk to one another, learn what the person down the street knows,” West says. “They may not be doing that consciously, but it’s the buzz of the city they’re participating in.” It is also one reason so many other metro areas are spending millions of dollars trying to foster “innovation zones” inside their city limits. Proximity and competition seem to bring out the clever in us.

Patents are not merely indicators of creativity; they may also induce people to create in the first place, since they afford you the opportunity to keep what’s yours—or at least to sell or license it as you choose. The Time poll asked a number of questions about the patent system, and for so prosaic a subject, it yielded passionate responses. People in 14 of the 17 countries scored close to or well above 90% when asked if they were familiar with the idea of patents; only India (72%) the UAE (67%) and Kenya (42%) scored lower. There was similar accord (90% overall) that a robust patenting system is important in fostering inventiveness.

When respondents were asked which of the 17 countries in the poll did the best job of protecting intellectual rights, the U.S. won in a landslide, at 40%, with the next best finisher, Germany, clocking in at just 10%. Respondents in none of the surveyed countries—not even in the U.S.—were satisfied with their own government’s patent system, with 76% wanting even tighter protections. “It’s one thing to have an idea, but to market it? Actualize it?” says Watson. “That’s more likely to occur if your intellectual property is protected and you know you’re going to realize some revenue.”

Just how all that theoretical revenue will be realized in the years ahead is not clear. But as with so ­many things, bet on tech. Seventy-one percent of people polled said the cell phone was the most important invention in human history—­something the unknown inventor of the wheel and first master of fire might dispute—and they believed that’s more or less the wave of the future too. In both developed and emerging countries, electronics and computer hardware were seen as the likeliest sectors for big innovation (at 23% and 22%, respectively), with health care and pharmaceuticals coming next (21% and 13%). The energy sector, which gets little love in most polls, finished at a respectable 15% in developed economies and 11% in emerging ones—with respondents perhaps learning from the big play China is making in the clean-­energy market. Most other sectors—­including aerospace, transportation and, alas, education—­finished in single digits.

Still, predicting innovation is almost always a game for fools. Twenty years ago, there was no practical Internet; now it runs the world. Sixty years ago, we had never heard of DNA; now that knowledge is a central driver of medical progress. We can quantify and systematize our world as much as we like. But our brains—where we make ingenious connections or we don’t, where ideas flash like heat lightning and are gone just as quickly if we’re not paying attention—are a different matter. We cannot order up inspiration, invent on a schedule. But we can be ready for ideas when they come to us, and we can build a world that makes that kind of preparedness likelier. The 21st ­century—the Time poll suggests—is shaping up to be that world.

—with reporting by Charlotte Alter/New York

ABOUT THIS POLL The TIME Invention Poll, in cooperation with Qualcomm, was a survey of 10,197 people in seven mature markets (South Korea, the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Australia, the U.K. and Singapore) and 10 emerging markets (South Africa, Kenya, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Mexico and Indonesia).

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