Imagination – The Cornerstone of Innovation

Part 1 of a series discussing the importance of imagination.

Everyone is talking about the “new normal” now — the post-pandemic space after we return to the physical location of work, school or play— and asking, what will life be like? There are many calls for innovative thinking. One of the best things about a library is that it provides a foundation for innovation, but building the pathway between great science, good ideas, and innovative products and services takes imagination. NLM is a springboard for innovation in health care, from describing previously not-well-understood biological processes to creating new drugs and therapeutics. Even taking the leap from this springboard requires imagination!

Imagination is a process of the mind somewhere between cognition, recall, and play, that allows a person to create novel ideas, sensations, and visualizations. Somewhere between play and wool-gathering, imagination is the capacity of an individual to conjure up ideas that can be pleasing or frightening, phantasmagoric or peaceful. Sometimes the experience of imagination is a self-contained pleasure; other times it becomes a catalyst for new ways of living or new products and services that can help the public in different ways.

Imagination is the starting point for innovation. It stimulates innovation through the experience of a mental what-if, unconstrained by the realities of physics or finance. Imagination is a talent that can be learned and refined over time, benefiting from the reinforcement of envisioning that which might be, and using that vision as a test case for that which can be. Everyone can exercise imagination, and through this practice, make the world around them a better place!

Nurses are pretty good at applying imagination to complex patient care situations. Take, for example, Marie Van Brittan Brown an African American nurse living in the Jamaica neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. In the early 1960s, she and her husband Albert, an electronics technician, imagined a way to help people feel and be safe in their homes.

Figure 1: Diagram of the original 1966 patent request filed by Marie Van Brittan Brown and Albert L. Brown courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Being and feeling safe at home is particularly important for homebound individuals. Many homebound individuals live alone and are isolated. They may lack the physical ability or strength to investigate a strange sound outside or answer a ringing doorbell. Ms. Brown and her husband imagined that homebound people would feel safer at home if they had a way to see through the front door and interrogate a visitor and, if necessary, activate an alarm to alert the police that help was needed. Envisioning a set of peepholes, microphones, and a closed-circuit television, they created the first modern home security system. A monitor installed in the home or bedroom of the resident allowed ease of viewing and enabled the resident to speak to someone outside the door. Ms. Brown and her husband were awarded a patent in 1969 for this system.

Like many people who use imagination to stimulate innovation, Ms. Brown found herself far ahead of her time. In the 1960s, closed circuit TV was considered a military application, and home builders found the cost of the system to be too high. However, having the forethought to register their design and seek a patent, they provided the “prior art” that later stimulated over 30 patents.

What helps build the pathway from science to imagination to innovation begins with an idea that addresses an important problem. Imagination complements science, making it possible to see what science enables. Achieving the full promise of innovation again requires a dose of science because leveraging what is already known to what could possibly be is what brings an imagined future into an innovative reality. It takes imagination to sketch out a future, and even more imagination to find (or build) the elements needed to make that future real.

NLM stands as a partner in your imaginative journey. Keep practicing and let us know how we can help you innovate the future you can imagine!

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

6 thoughts on “Imagination – The Cornerstone of Innovation”

  1. A colleague, male nurse, stated that nurses are the queens of workarounds. As someone who has studied workarounds for 30 years, I agree and celebrate the creativity. I tell my students that every workaround is a symptom to be cherished and a clue to improve the processes. As you know, 99% exist because the system needs help. <1% are due to lazy actions.

    1. Dear Ross,

      Having the energy and passion to look at things differently are part of the creative process. The goal is to keep the system moving in support of patients. Thanks for sharing your feedback.
      — Patti

  2. Dear Director,
    Imagination can’t be teached, therefore it can’t be learned. And the same goes for Curiosity, Creativity and, ultimately, Intelligence and Innovation.
    They can and must be properly nurtured.
    We are not born equal. And some of us are born better.
    I am a 60-year-old Nuclear Medicine physician, just in case.

    Be Safe

    1. I believe that we can teach using our imagination, and that creativity is a process that can be taught and learned by everyone.
      — Patti

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