U.S. News

Inspiring Innovation, One Good Idea At A Time

Linda R. Sittenfeld, Senior Producer

Most of the time we feature good ideas in this space, but today we take a look at how those ideas are hatched. Specifically, we talk to one man who inspires innovation by teaching students how to solve ordinary (and sometimes not-so-ordinary problems) — Burt Swersey, professor of mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

How do you inspire innovation?
"The first thing we do in the class is identify needs. Real needs. Needs that are not even understood by the people who need them. In the old days engineers would graduate and wait to be told what to do. Nowadays companies need innovators.

"No one asked for e-mail. No one asked for the Internet. Innovators meet a need. And my job is to encourage them, so they can create impossible solutions. The idea is to put a product into someone's hands and have them say 'how did I ever live without this?' "

People in different places on the economic spectrum have different needs.  Where do you start?
"Of course, it's easier to do this for people at the bottom of the pyramid than the top. Bill Gates talks about getting people out of poverty. It's easier to identify needs at the bottom of the pyramid. It's easier to start with the developing world.

"One of the first things we do is identify what's been done for major groups like the elderly, people without running water. We talk about what's already been done. And talk about the ideal solution.

"Sometimes there's yelling in my class: 'Can we do this? Of course!' "

Once you've identified a need and solution, what's next?
"We have to separate the "what" from the 'how.' Passion to achieve the ideal solution is the 'what.' Then we need the 'how.'

"I have a hat. I wear it backwards. On the back it says 'WHAT.' When the time is right I turn it around. On the front it says 'HOW.'

"Then we have to commit to finding the solution. That kind of courage is really admirable. The students need to be open, to take initiative. It's almost better if they don't know much. If they know too much they think it's impossible.

Can you give us a couple of examples of innovations that came out of your class?
Green, biodegradable insulation — It's insulation that biodegrades when you are done with it. Students who grew up in VT on a farm observed how mushrooms grow and came up with this. .

A new kind of fire extinguisher training program — They started with kitchen fire as a problem, and saw that the present way of training peole to put out fires is archaic.  Now they're selling these programs all over the country.

Burt Swersey's Class Description:
Burt Swersey's major interest is to better understand how to create innovative solutions to problems. The first step is to "see what others do not see" and find opportunities and problems that are not apparent to everyone. For example, humans have always wanted to fly like the birds, but the need for overnight delivery or cheap photocopies (xerography) were not appreciated by most people before their dissemination. Chester Carlson developed and patented a photocopy machine but it took him 10 years to convince a small company that there was a need and market for his invention. And Frederic Smith proposed the idea for what became Federal Express in a class at Yale and was told that it would not work, and received a grade of "C". His teaching includes Design Studio 1 and an advanced design option, "Inventor's Studio," which focuses on patenting and where students actually write their own patent applications.