when good ideas go bad

Not all innovations are success stories. For every Model-T, there’s an Edsel, and for every VHS recorder, a Betamax. Some ideas are ahead of their time, some are marketed badly, and some just plain stink. (New Coke, anyone?) Even the greatest innovators have come up with some real clunkers.

Thomas Edison has over 1000 patents to his name, but not all of them are as good as the light bulb or the phonograph. In the early 1900s, Edison came up with the idea of building cheap concrete housing. Concrete was poured into a mold, forming the sides, floors, ceilings and roof of the house as a single piece. A typical concrete home, with plumbing, heating and lighting, was supposed to cost less than $1200. Unfortunately, a builder had to buy at least $175,000 in equipment before pouring a single one. And the few houses that were built developed cracks as the concrete settled. Edison persevered in using concrete creatively, building concrete phonograph cabinets and other furniture, but — big surprise — those weren’t popular with the public, either, and newspaper cartoons ridiculed the idea. Edison quietly abandoned these innovations, and decided to stick to more conventional uses of concrete. His concrete company was for a time successful, even supplying concrete to build Yankee Stadium, but after several bankruptcies, it was closed shortly after his death.

Visionary architect and designer Le Corbusier’s experimental use of reinforced concrete frames in his buildings, such as Notre Dame du Haut (1955), influenced architects the world over. But Le Corbusier was also an influential city planner, envisioning modern, technologically ambitious “vertical cities” purged of bustling neighborhoods and congested, dirty streets: Everything was to be rational, logical, clean, ordered, planned: the new architecture was to meet its inhabitants’ every need from work to leisure, making for happy, productive citizens. Le Corbusier called his vision of this urban utopia “The Radiant City.” Unfortunately, when his concept was put into action, the results were anything but radiant, becoming a failed attempt at social engineering through architecture. In the US, his ideas were behind vast urban renewal schemes and regimented high-rise public housing projects that devastated existing neighborhoods and concentrated crime and other social problems in one place. Modern they might have been, but they were also socially destructive.

Buckminster Fuller was also a visionary, interested in doing more with less. His invention of the geodesic dome created the lightest, strongest and most cost-effective structure yet built. In 1933, Fuller built the futuristic-looking Dymaxion Car in response to the inefficient and fuel-wasting automobiles he saw around him. The Dymaxion Car was aerodynamically styled to resemble an airplane. It rode on three wheels, could seat 11 people, was fast, and got excellent gas mileage. Unfortunately, it crashed during an impromptu drag race through the streets of Chicago, killing its driver and seriously injuring a passenger. Though it was later shown that the crash was caused by reckless driving rather than poor design, because of the bad publicity, Fuller abandoned the project. As with most of his ideas, he was interested primarily in testing and proving his design principles, not manufacturing and marketing them.

To have a lasting, positive impact on the world, just being innovative isn’t enough. Perhaps with a few changes, a simple understanding of what people are willing to live with, and even better marketing, some of these ideas might have been more successful. Today, after all, concrete houses are commonplace. But planning the birth of a new social system using architecture remains a tall order.

To view this article with illustrations, please go to the publisher’s web site and download a PDF of Sparks of Innovation magazine, which was published in 2004.
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