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What is serendipitous innovation?

Research is fundamentally a process of exploring, it just sometimes feels some research processes are more obvious or efficient than others.

Some innovation is the outcome of dedicated and determined work to find answers to a problem, but some innovation is just ‘a bit lucky’.

This second category includes accidents, chance encounters, flat-out ‘mistakes’, and all manner of random occurrences that lead up to the invention of a new breakthrough. If some innovation success can be attributed in this way, how might we all get a bit ‘luckier’?

To take a closer look at this, here, we’ll take a look at what electrical pacemakers, microwaves, penicillin and Post-its (all fantastic innovations) have in common. Let’s find out…


A pacemaker

The pacemaker was invented by Wilson Greatbach and can be credited in part to accidentally putting the wrong electrical component in a device for recording heartbeats.


The microwave was discovered when engineer Percy Spencer found that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted when he was close to a magnetron in the radar array he was tinkering with.


Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was brought about by an old petri dish being discarded on a windowsill in the sunlight.

Post-it notes

Post-it notes were based on Spencer Silver’s failure to develop a super strong adhesive while working for the manufacturing company 3M – instead he created a low tack glue. Some six years later, in 1974, a colleague, Art Fry, used this glue to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook. Fry then used 3M’s officially sanctioned ‘permitted bootlegging’ policy to develop the idea. The original notes’ yellow colour was chosen by accident, as the lab next door to the Post-it team had only yellow scrap paper to use.

Were these inventors just lucky?

You could rightly suggest that there is more than luck at play here. Each of these inventors was already usefully knowledgeable, skilled, and active in a field of research related to their discovery. In each case, there were factors that arguably made it likely either that they would at some stage have made that breakthrough or that they were well placed to either invent something or capitalise on it eventually.

In very many ways, the scientific method is about managing a controlled series of accidents to make the accidental process of innovation more efficient. Research is fundamentally a process of exploring, it just sometimes feels that some research processes are more obvious or efficient than others.

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