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From Icebergs to Etsy Masks

by Sabrina May

Close your eyes and think about the inspirational posters that were plastered throughout your classrooms in primary school.

You may recall that poster that had an iceberg, where it says something like “you only see the successes of others but not the effort they allocated to get there.”

Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From” lays out certain levels under the tip of that iceberg. He also takes a philosophical approach on the effects of society and creation. He reminds us that innovation is meant to inspire.

With that genuine, bright, and curious spark of influence, many people were able to create modern day appliances that wouldn’t have been readily available if the inventors hadn’t given up on their project: Air conditioning, the lightbulb, an EKG. As a society we micro measure famous innovators who get the tip of the iceberg. But some innovation happens much more gradually under that iceberg. Johnson’s more subtle, less visible influences on good ideas include serendipity and chance.

Steven Johnson’s thoughts on innovation can be illustrated by mask making during the Pandemic of 2020.

His key ideas about serendipity, error, and the 10/10 rule all have come into play. Johnson talks about the beauty of discovery when least expected (Serendipity), this goes hand in hand with 10/10, when ideas spread to other creations.

As Hannah Montana (a great influencer of Gen-Z) once said, “everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days.” This perfectly illustrates Johnsons rule of Error. It’s more than error — it takes grit, character, and resilience to overcome error — and boy did society face these challenges during the pandemic.

Etsy is saturated with small business creatives and vendors. One basic essential you can see boom over the pandemic is the mask. You see creative colors, fabrics, and different medical grade fabrics; the options are endless.

One noteworthy example came from a group of overly exhausted and Zoomed-out students of Johns Hopkins who saw an opportunity in the saturated market of masks. Despite being in remote locations, the students managed to make an adaptable mask with detachable, clear, and medical grade fabric that would be beneficial to the environment — something we didn’t know that we needed.

Taking team members from design to Biomedical Engineering, they managed to place top five global finalists in a competition for the X-prize Next-Gen Mask.

This team of students started their own group called Polair. There are many other stories like Polair, but what we don’t see is the the grit and development that go behind the scenes. Nevertheless — the beauty of it all is that — the error of one product sparked the idea of another invention: error and serendipity.

So I ask you — what inspires you during this pandemic? Here’s a challenge, grab a pen and paper (or your cellphone notes), and note things in your everyday life that serves a function that you think could be improved upon. Jot down anything that inspires you or mortifies you… anything and everything! As Hannah Montana says “its the climb.” Let's get cracking inventor!

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