Two Ways of Thinking

I went to a shopping mall today and I noticed they had installed a new feature in the parking lot* They had actually installed it at the end of last year, but I never bothered to notice how exactly it worked till now – it’s one of those things that told you whether a lot was taken. If a lot was taken, a red light will shine, and a green light will shine if a lot isn’t occupied. I’ve seen a lot of those in parking lots, but this one actually interested me. Here’s how it looks like:


It’s a potato quality photo, but I think it shows how it works quite well. The system used is the ParkAssist M3. A camera is trained onto a parking lot. If there is a car with a licence plate in the lot, the system will know that the lot is taken, and display a red light. There are two cameras, so one light represents two spots.

As I walked past it, I had a hunch on how it worked – it uses computer vision, and one thought led to another, and I soon began to think about the two major ways of thinking about products. Well, technically there are three. If you were to give an assignment to any random guy off the street to design a parking lot monitoring system, there would be one of three broad response types: give up, innovation or invention. I’m not going to even deign discussing giving up.

This line of thought was quite influenced by a talk by Alan Kay I watched earlier this week:

After our shopping, I pointed out the cameras to my partner, who immediately asked “are those cameras?”, followed by “but that’s so wasteful!”. That was her inner electronics engineer speaking. Both she and I knew that there were cheaper, and probably more efficient methods of designing parking lot indicator solutions. She also highlighted her way of thinking: The innovator.

The Innovator and The Inventor

The Innovator way of thinking that leverages existing knowledge and products into new products or solutions. The solution the innovator provides fulfils the problem brief, often with little or no side effects.

The Inventor way of thinking on the other hand, also leverages existing knowledge into new products or solutions, but the solution the inventor provides not only fulfils the problem brief, but often has side effects.

By now, the phrase “side effects” has been repeated twice. So what are these side effects? More often than not, these side effects are new knowledge that can be leveraged on. Saying this is quite vague, so let’s go into some examples – how would a person with predominantly innovative thinking think about designing a solution for a parking lot indicator? How would a person with predominantly inventive thinking think about the same problem?

A very simple solution would be to use some sort of detector in each parking lot. A light sensor would be useful. If a car is parked over the light sensor, it would stop detecting light, and therefore the assumption is that the parking lot is filled. Problems like temporary occlusion can be overcome by timers and thresholds. Light sensors, timers and microchips are widely available, and building one would be fulfilling the brief of developing a solution to inform someone if the parking lot is taken. It is a clean and simple solution. However, the solution doesn’t really add to the knowledge of the world. Neither does it have a lot of side effects: it does what it does and that’s it.

A more complex solution would be to use a camera and computer vision. It is extremely complex. It requires a computer and algorithms to detect whether a vehicle exists in the spot. To do that, the system would need to know what an empty spot looks like, what a vehicle looks like, and a lot of other considerations. It also most probably adds to the sum knowledge of the world, that if shared, can be leveraged upon in the future. This system has a side effect – because it uses computer vision, it can detect what the licence plates are, and can even be used to help people find their cars.

In the video above, Alan Kay calls the result of the innovator’s way of thinking incremental technology, while the inventor’s way of thinking non-incremental tech. I’m more interested in the way of thinking, so I pursued further.

Boxes and Rhetorical Questions

I asked the question of the parking lot indicator to a number of people. Given my circle of friends, there were many people who displayed innovative thinking. Not many displayed inventive thinking. I wondered why. And so with a number of people, I pushed the questions further.

I believe there are two basic drivers of inventive thinking. When I started adding constraints (mostly artificial) to the questions to my friends, much more interesting solutions began to emerge. There is also another driver of inventive thinking: daring to ask rhetorical questions – specifically, “why not?”.

When I saw the cameras being used, internally I immediately inquired the reason as to using a camera. My internal engineer noted that there are definitely more cost-effective way of doing the same thing. I caught myself doing that, and asked – “why not?”

Asking “Why Not”

Asking “why not” can lead to really cool stuff. For the longest of time, I’ve admired the stuff they do at Xerox PARC and Bell Labs in the 60s and 70s (Locally, we have NICTA, which does really cool stuff* Although I am quite upset that they have recently had their funding cut ). I’ve read books like The Idea Factory, and indeed, the general mood of being anti-establishment. They were sticking it up to the man by asking “why not?”

Questioning “why not” is generally a healthy thing. However, there too can be flip side of it. For example, people who support the anti-vaccine movements are asking “why not?”, but they do not accept the answers in the face of evidence that comes with the question. That’s just a stupid thing to do.

So yeah, questioning “why not” has to be somewhat balanced. Fortunately we DO have a system in place that allows for such questions to be asked: it’s called science. I will be first to admit that it’s not the most bias-free system, but it is an open system. If you have a really controversial finding, and it passes peer-review, it would change the world.

The Personal Connection

The thoughts about the innovator’s way of thinking and the inventor’s way of thinking filled my mind as I zombied behind my partner in Westfield. It quite affects me, because I do like to think I do think in both ways. But one way of thinking fits being an entrepreneur and running a startup well, and the other does not.

I created on a whim. On the one hand, I think “this is enough, I should go to the market with the product”. On the other hand, I want to drill down deeper into the problem and create better tracking, because, “why not?”.

I’m not really sure what to think. Hence this blog post. I think I’ll need to meditate more on it.

comments powered by Disqus