The Role of Imagination in Creating The Next Set of Breakthrough Innovations


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I stumbled across the article that Vannevar Bush wrote in 1945 for the Atlantic. You can read the entire post here.

The reason I am interested in the post is because this post is a living proof about the role that imagination can play in the innovation process. He was able to predict in part what would the world look and feel like much ahead of his own time. What is interesting is also the method that he uses in order to come up with his ideas. Let me try to share what i learnt from his approach and how we can use this to assist in our own quest for using imagination to come up with innovations of the future.

Before trying to Predict the Future, Understand the Present:

The first thing that he does in his article is to do a thorough analysis of the present day situation, including what the world war had fostered and what it hindered, from the perspective of scientific inquiry and progress. He shares his thoughts on the state of scientific research and where has science seen progress and where it stands still.

Identify potentialities by extrapolation:

He then goes on to extrapolate the present by identifying the potentialities in the progress made. This is where is thinks and shares about what would happen if things were to continue on the same trajectory in the near-to-short term. He talks about improvement in the photographic process and lenses. This is when he is talking about immediate and imminent progress based on what is already happening. Most futurists and trend predictors use this process to forecast their trends.

Now, Let Your Imagination Fly:

Once he has built a good solid foundation by identifying the progress already made and what is expected in the near-to-short term, he then allows his imagination to take flight. He talks about the camera becoming so small that someone would be able to carry a small little camera on strapped onto their foreheads (sounds to me like GoPro).

The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut.

He then goes to explore and explain how the film would look like.

Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.

He then connects the development of a photograph to that of a fax machine and imagines that just like fax machine is able to print documents with depth or intensity of the words, the photographs will also be printed in a way that the entire picture is visible with its depth in colours.

He then goes on to imagine the advances in micro-film technology that would enable the whole of Encyclopedia Britannia (one of the largest book collections at that time) could be made available in the size of a match stick (sounds like a DVD of Encyclopedia Britannia to me).

The encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van.

The material for the microfilm Britannica would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent.

He doesn’t stop there, he then goes on to talk about the fact that it is not enough to store all of this knowledge in such a small size. It is also important to be able to create new knowledge and do so in an easy and simple way. He talks about a device into which someone speaks (in a specific way) and the device converts this into the appropriate text (sounds a lot like voice to text devices – Siri?)

To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution. To consider the first stage of the procedure, will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record? He does so indirectly, by talking to a stenographer or a wax cylinder; but the elements are all present if he wishes to have his talk directly produce a typed record. All he needs to do is to take advantage of existing mechanisms and to alter his language.

He then takes flight in his imagination to put all of this together and what would it feel like to live in an era with such devices:

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.

He then comes back to reality and understands that a lot needs to happen between his current reality and his imagined reality, but is also hopeful and confident that this is not impossible and goes on to show progress from the past and how that implies that in the future the pace of innovation and creativity will only accelerate and hence, the imagined reality is not very far from the time that he was writing the piece.

He goes on to think about mathematical inquiry and tries to define who a mathematician really is:

A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformations of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.

This is probably the closest definition that I have come across for a data scientist. He also argues that there will be machines which will do the actual mathematical calculations and enable the mathematician to think about a higher order of logic. He also understood that improvement in one field will impact all the other surround fields of inquiry and hence there will be lots of progress across all the fields of enquiry.

He also understood that the potential of such a machine is not limited to the scientist.

The scientist, however, is not the only person who manipulates data and examines the world about him by the use of logical processes, although he sometimes preserves this appearance by adopting into the fold anyone who becomes logical, much in the manner in which a British labor leader is elevated to knighthood. Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine. Formal logic used to be a keen instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students’ souls. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits. Put a set of premises into such a device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine.

I think this sounds too much like a general purpose computer to me or even a smart phone. He then goes on to imagine how a retail store could be run if all these innovations become a reality. It sounds a lot like an ERP system running the entire store and its operations.

In the same article he also predicts that we can actually teach a machine to learn and operate not just on selection by indexing but by association and that machines would be able to beat humans (sounds like a prediction that seems like the story of IBM’s Watson winning Jeopardy to me) – machine learning.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

He then goes on to talk about a personal machine, he calls it “memex”, that stores all the information and data that we need as individuals (including all the knowledge that humans have accumulated over the centuries) and is made available to the individual to access and learn, whenever he or she wants to. He also talks about associative indexing of information (sounds like hyper-linking to me), which will allow us to move from a particular topic to any topic that is connected and relevant to the topic being considered.

He then imagines what would it be like to have and use such a personal device.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Sounds a lot like a combination of Google, Wikipedia and Evernote to me.

He then goes on to talk about the fact that science is a tool that could throw up weapons and at the same time throw up innovations that can enable humanity to keep track of its history and create a completely new future as well.

Applied Imagination:

In a single article, Vannevar Bush has imagined so many innovations that we enjoy today, almost 7 decades from the time that he imagined them. He imagined something similar to GoPro, selfie sticks, Google Glass, ERP systems, Encyclopedia Britannica on DVD’s, -, Search Engines, note taking on the cloud, voice to text and text to voice conversion machines, personal computers, mobile phones and many more.

This goes on to show that if we apply our imagination and start from the place where we are today, and take leaps of faiths, we can imagine what could future look like and then go after this future with all our current strengths.

This ability to imagine is critical for all of us who wish to be part of the generation of innovators who will define what and how our future shapes up.

How to Develop this ability to Imagine:

In his blog post “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity, Scott Barry Kaufman, talks about 3 kinds of neural networks – The executive Attention Network (this is activated when we need focused attention to do something specific), The imagination Network, also called as the default network and the Salience Network (is like the switching network and decides which neural network needs to be activated when).

The Imagination network or the default network is the neural network that

According to Randy Buckner and colleagues,

the Default Network (referred to here as the Imagination Network) is involved in “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.” The Imagination Network is also involved in social cognition. For instance, when we are imagining what someone else is thinking, this brain network is active. The Imagination Network involves areas deep inside the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe (medial regions), along with communication with various outer and inner regions of the parietal cortex.


What this informs me is that the ability to imagine is inherently human and we are all capable of letting our imagination sour, if we want to.

So, the inability to imagine new or alternate realities is totally self-induced and sometimes induced by our systems (education and even the culture of our organisations). This also means that it is in our very hands to set this right and start imagining alternate realities. The more we practice this, the better we will get at it.

The more important it is for us to innovate and be creative, the more critical is the skill to imagine alternate realities.

The time when Vannevar wrote this piece, it was a point in time where technological breakthrough’s were imminent.

We are again at the same crossroads & technological breakthroughs are imminent. The question we need to now ask is the following:

Will we bring in the breakthrough’s or will we stand and wait for someone to do it for us. Click To Tweet

PS: You can view a visual tour of Vannevar Bush’s Work below:

You can also find all my posts on creativity and innovation.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mukesh Gupta
I currently work for SAP as Customer advocate. In this capacity, I am responsible to ensure that the voice of the customer is being heard and play the bridge between customers and SAP. Prior to joining SAP, I have worked with different organizations serving in different functions like customer service, logistics, production planning & sales, marketing and business development functions. I was also the founder-CEO of a start-up called "Innovative Enterprises". The venture was in the retail & distribution business. I blog at


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