Tinkerers and Innovators

My February column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

There are those who tinker, and then there are tinkerers.

Those who putter around the garage on weekends fixing the lawn mower, changing a spark plug, or getting their hands dirty on other do-it-yourself projects are tinkering. Most engineers are known to have a tinkering gene or two. But those who take it to a higher level, those whose tinkering leads to creative revolutions, are the innovators who redefine the status quo in everything from culture to business to technology. Many times, they too are engineers.

These latter kinds of tinkerers have always been around. But the rate of change these individuals can influence is far greater today because the ability to communicate globally is much easier than ever before.

Interestingly, there’s not a distinctive demarcation between those who tinker lightly and those tinkerers who are on the forefront of large-scale impact.

Creative thinking exists in all of us. What often defines breakthrough creativity propelling major change is the unswerving drive to bring an idea forward. To carry these out—and also to lead what author Seth Godin describes as “tribes” of people who support these creative ideas and foster their development despite the influence of naysayers—they need confidence and courage. A thick skin also helps.

There are many examples of creative ideas and concepts as well as of individuals who are evangelists of change.

In this month’s cover story, “The Revolution May Well be Gasified,” on page 24, we look at individuals who proselytize the use of gasification by powering their homes with virtually no emissions using wood pellets, corn, and other biomass. We highlight this movement not because it is a perfect replacement for fossil fuels, but because it represents a group of tinkerers who believe they can make an imprint on our energy and power needs, as well as on the environment. It’s an example of grassroots innovation.

Ann Marie Sastry is another example of a creative thinker in the energy area (listen to an interview with Sastry at http://www.asme.org). She is the president and CEO of Sakti3 (www.sakti3.com), a promising next-generation electric-vehicle battery startup company that is backed by the likes of Khosla Ventures and GM Ventures. It is a Michigan-based company developing an advanced solid-state rechargeable lithium-ion battery for electric vehicles. Her goal is to develop a battery that will enable a hybrid-electric vehicle to get over 100 miles per gallon, and she’s got the right financiers to back her aspiration.

Sastry, who last year received ASME’s Frank Kreith Energy Award, said that tinkering in the labs of the University of Michigan, where she is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mechanical, Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering, was not enough. She wanted to implement what she knows to be a sound concept to impact the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. Sastry is an innovator who has the inspiration to successfully lead a “tribe,” as she spearheads a creative revolution.

Each of us holds the creativity to lead change, as long as we are not afraid to innovate and revolutionize.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

February 2012

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