One of the primary roles of an interactive science center is to showcase the latest advances in science and technology, both locally and internationally. Exhibitions, demonstrations, and educational programs on these topics serve two main goals. They highlight the contributions of science and technology to society, and they draw the visitor’s attention to new knowledge, technology, and services that can be used in everyday life.
In this regard, it is important to distinguish between a discovery, an invention, and an innovation. Research scientists make discoveries, which may be defined as ‘revealing a truth that was always there’, or ‘confirming a theory or hypotheses’. Through the scientific process, they unravel the complex mechanisms of nature (and manmade modifications of nature) and demonstrate how they work. In contrast, an invention is a ‘product, technique, or service that has been brought to the market and changes the way people view or interact with the world and other people around them. This leads us to innovation.
Innovation, in turn, is a process that brings together novel concepts and ideas and molds them into new products, techniques, and services. An innovation may also be defined as an improvement to someone else’s invention. Innovation adds value that appeals to existing users and also attracts new users. When this happens, businesses, products, and services tap into new markets. Still one of the most common examples of this is Apple launching the iPod and iPhone. A computer company changing the music and personal telephonic market.
There is a constant feedback loop between discoveries, inventions, and innovations. For instance, discoveries may lead to the development of new materials which make new inventions and innovations possible. Often, in the history of science, landmark discoveries have spawned a proliferation of new inventions and innovations, as occurred during the Golden Age of Islam from 850 to 1492 and during the First and Second Industrial Revolutions in Europe in the 19th century.
The nature of invention has changed dramatically in recent decades following the invention of the computer and the development of the Internet, information science, and the digital economy. Instead of physical technology, many modern inventions take the form of ‘invisible’ software, mobile and web-based applications, cloud-based services, and techniques that serve the needs of our modern time. In addition, many modern inventions and innovations address urgent needs, such as the imperative to live more sustainably. Yet others provide novel ways of listening to music, creating artwork, playing sports, or simply being entertained.
New scientific disciplines and techniques are changing the way in which we think, learn, innovate and attempt to improve our quality of life. They include nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence (A.I.), virtual and augmented reality, and 3D printing.
Increasingly, technological innovations and inventions have changed from being handheld tools to forms of social intervention. For instance, the Internet and smartphones, and the novel services that they provide, have changed the ways in which we live, work and play.
Many modern inventions, or apps on existing inventions, facilitate technology leapfrogs from the pre-industrial era to the information age, especially among people in developing countries. Yet others offer new ways of dealing with the challenges that technology itself has thrown at us, such as hyper-connectivity, the digital divide, fear of A.I., vast data fields, and the environmental costs of wasteful ways of living.
Twenty years ago, Microsoft began developing products and services that met the needs of overlooked and under-resourced countries. They called it ‘inclusive design’ on the basis that these products will eventually be useful to everyone. Inclusive design, and the umbrella concept of ‘universal design’, have, of course, been with us for centuries.
In 1808 an Italian, Pellegrino Turri, invented the typewriter so that a blind friend could write legibly and, in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone to help hearing-impaired people, including himself and Thomas Edison, to communicate. The transistor was initially developed to power ever-smaller hearing aids and, in 1973, Vint Cerf, who is hard of hearing, developed email so that he could communicate with his wife, who is deaf.
Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Siri, was initially developed for people who had been marginalized but is now used universally. In all these cases, the innovation process was turned on its head, as the needs of the disadvantaged were first met, which then lead to the product or service being universally adopted.
The fields of discovery, invention, and innovation have many exciting and inspirational backstories to tell, and it is the role of science centres to share these stories in the most compelling way to capture the publics’ attention.
Over 30 years ago the American science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, rightly stated that “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”. One of the key roles of science centres is to help the public to keep abreast of the latest scientific discoveries and technology so that we can incorporate these advances into our ways of life. No other public learning institutions are better equipped than science centres to play this role.