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Inventing in the 21st century: How today’s tools, networks, and communications are harnessing intellect

What do you picture when you hear the word "inventor"? For me, inventor conjures up images of a windowless room, endless shelves overflowing with mechanical parts, bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, failed experiments scattered on the floor, all shrouded in secrecy.  A mad scientist's lab.  A garage.

But today's labs are more likely to be high-tech, well-lit, and computer-based.  MIT's Fablabs, which "provide widespread access to modern means for invention" have things like a computer-controlled lasercutter and a milling machine with micron resolution.  There's even a mobile version.

Meanwhile, information sharing and collaboration are soaring.  Sites like Innocentive connect "seekers" and "solvers." Millions of people are openly sharing their ideas on the web to solve problems. 

What's even more exciting are efforts to harness humanity's intellectual abilities to address our big challenges.  Design for the Other 90% facilitates inventions that address critical needs related to shelter, water, energy, and more.  Intellectual Ventures, with ties to Bill Gates, brings together experts to solve problems, including challenges related to energy and medicine.

For people like me who might have an idea but not much technical skill, there's Quirky, a place where anyone can suggest a product and the online community decides what actually gets made.  There are also companies tapping the general public for the next great product idea.

It turns out that the "lab" of the future might actually be an essentially weightless, placeless forum where people from all around the globe can share ideas.

All of this is, as they've branded it at MIT, is fabulous.  I'm not talking about the high-tech nature of what's happening, but the implications of harnessing more intellect to solve problems.

Intellect is at the root of all wealth creation.  We often focus on physical resources and tools as the key to our wealth, but it's intellect - problem-solving, mind power, innovation, design - that drives wealth.  The more mind power focused on inventing, the more likely we are to be successful.

What we're seeing now is a fundamental change in how we harness intellect.  In the last decade, people who might have never had access to the tools and information they needed to create a new design are suddenly able to invent.  There's an environment where more and more people can participate, where more and more intellect is invested in and applied to solving problems, and where information is shared faster and more broadly than ever before.

Intellect is the key to being able to create much more wealth with many fewer material resources.  That's why the dMass definition emphasizes leveraging intellect - it's the one limitless resource we have.

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Leveraging intellect to create business value

Faced with uncertainty, companies are generating profits by using the one unlimited resource we have: human mind power

Profitable businesses undergo an endless, iterative process of minimizing operating costs while maximizing revenues. Conceptually, the equation is simple: lower operating costs + stable or increased revenues = increased profits.

However, in the past few years, uncertainty in global politics, economics, and social structures has intensified the pressure on businesses to deliver more results in less time with fewer resources. This pressure has yielded both painful and positive results.

The painful results are obvious: weakening currencies, depressed corporate earnings, restricted cash flows, high unemployment, and a volatile stock market.

The positive results are important, but a little less visible. Because of downward pressure, companies large and small are forced to be even more creative. They are adapting to a world of natural resource constraints, defining productivity and performance over a longer timeframe, and modifying their feedback mechanisms to measure success in new, more accurate ways consistent with the new global reality. In short, they are learning how to squeeze more value out of their operations with the same or fewer resources.

In the same way companies create value-based pricing for products or services, they are now beginning to achieve greater profits by questioning what benefits their activities deliver, and then creating more effective means to generate those benefits. One resource that is guaranteed to be available in abundance is people. And companies are finding new ways to leverage this resource to create more value.

One particularly noteworthy example is PepsiCo’s “Refresh Project.” In 2008, PepsiCo spent a reported $33 Million on ads during the Superbowl. In January of 2010, PepsiCo decided for the first time in 20 years not to advertise during the Superbowl at all. This re-evaluation of activities does not imply that they value advertising any less. The Refresh Project arguably heightens brand awareness for a wider captive audience due to the nature in which people interact with the brand. What they did was look at the benefits of their actions and found a way to create more value with fewer resources.

Through the PepsiCo Refresh Project, the company distributes $1.3 million each month in grants to individuals, non-profits, and businesses who submit ideas to help improve the environment and “refresh” their communities. A back-of-the-envelope calculation quickly shows that the annual cost of the Refresh Project is roughly half ($15.6 Million) of the $33 million spent on one night of Superbowl ads. (This excludes the sunk costs of project launch, new legal framework, and project maintenance team. However, presumably the $33 million figure did not include the ad concept creation, editing, compliance, and implementation phases either.)

PepsiCo was able to cut their advertising budget in half while attracting a wider audience that actively interacts with their brand over a longer timeframe. At the same time, they have used the project to create voluminous content, generate new ideas, and develop a new brand supported by positive messaging. They are making productive use of every dollar spent with community-based initiatives that have no other associated costs or expenses for the company.

PepsiCo has found a way to generate business value by leveraging the one unlimited resource we have: mind power. This is one of the primary ways that companies will be creating value in the new economy.