A woman who invented today

A little story that demostrates how innovation is done in real life

Ana Bibikova

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When we think of “innovation” we immediately imagine SpaceX, artificial intelligence, fancy prosthetics to save someone’s life or make it comfortable. These are all brilliant examples of innovation. But it is not HOW the innovation is done. It is the result, but not the process.

I really love this post that appeared not long ago on Reddit. A developer explains what game development is about. It goes like this: you spend tons of your time and effort to do one little detail right. But the trick is that if you’ve done it right nobody will notice. Everyone will notice only if you’ve failed to do it right.

It is the same way innovation works — one little step at a time. But every little step matters because if you get it wrong it will have a huge impact.

Here’s a story that demonstrates this principle.

In the early 70s Laila Ohlgren was the only woman engineer in Sweden. She was a part of the group that was in charge of developing a mobile network for Ericsson — the first telecommunications operator to work in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

At some point in time, the group was assigned to deal with the major challenge of actual phones mobility. Test that had been run shown that when a cell phone was on the move (in a car, for instance), the switching between mobile towers was not fast enough to enable the number dial. At that time mobile phones were making calls just like analog ones — dialing one number at a time (in case you were born long after those they looked like this ).

rotary dial old fashioned telephone

For instance, the first number was dialed when the person was in the first zone of the network coverage. By the time the second number was punched in the person has already moved to the next zone and the first number was totally “forgotten”.

So, at the meeting, a whole bunch of engineers with PhD and awards were heatedly arguing about ways to punch numbers faster or putting limits on the speed with which phones can be moved (for real!) when Laila Ohlgren (she was the only woman and the youngest one) suddenly suggested:

Why don’t we stop thinking of mobile phones as a copy of what we already have? It is a new technology, so let’s make it do something different. What if we make phones store the whole array on a memory card and then dial them all at once?

Nobody had thought of it before. It was a breakthough. If not for Laila Ohlgren we’d probably have named mobile phones the most inefficient technology in human history.

Every technology seems trivial in a hindsight. But dealing with it in present is different. It calls for courage, detachement and certain ignorance that dictates you to forget your knowledge of how things should work.

But the devil is always in the detail.

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