Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dean Kamen, Master of the Segway

Dean Kamen is no stranger to innovation.

Kamen poses in his signature denim.
Kamen, a sixty-three year old East Coast native, crafted his first invention while in college. The dialysis pump he created made it more comfortable for patients to receive dialysis in their homes. Today, Kamen holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, many for medical devices. He was awarded the National Medal of Tenchology in 2000 by President Clinton and hosted a Planet Green television show called Dean of Invention. He usually wears denim head-to-toe.

Arguably, Kamen’s biggest invention to date is the Segway Personal Transporter. The Segway is a two-wheeled, battery-powered, self-balancing electric vehicle. It can travel at up to 12.5 miles and moves people without requiring them to sit down. Today, you might see packs of them cruising through Millennium Park or at any tourist destination in a number of countries. This wasn’t Kamen’s vision, though, and isn’t the only use for the alternative transportation tools.

In a 2002 TED Talk, Kamen discusses his creative process in inventing the Segway. According to Kamen, the idea was not to just create technology, but instead to use technology to find a solution to a problem. He explained that in 2002, more than 50% of the global population lives in cities and that urban populations are, in fact, very well connected. The problem? Cities are very dense and many transportation solutions lead to polluted, cloudy air. Car, bus, and train transport all have negative environmental aspects – and the polluted air can lead to health issues. Additionally, vehicle traffic takes up valuable space in packed urban areas. According to Kamen, 65% of any given city’s land mass is composed of parked cars. Kamen wanted to create a safe system of transportation that put minimal stress on the human body. The result? The Segway.

Photo courtesy of groupon.com

The invention of the Segway was not without obstacles. According to the law in many cities, Segways had to be used only on the street, as they were considered ‘recreational vehicles.’ Kamen refused to accept this. First, he approached the U.S. Postmaster General, who agreed to allow mailmen to use Segways. Next, he approached police chiefs in assorted cities. They allowed their officers to test Segways, too. Both groups – the postal service and police forces – felt that the Segway was a useful tool. Additionally, Kamen found that both young people and older citizens were receptive to the idea, as people that couldn’t use a skateboard, a bike, or rollerblades, or someone unable to drive but still needing to travel and carry things could use a Segway.

Kamen’s creativity comes from asking the right questions. As Malcolm Gladwell explains, creativity is figuring out that there is a problem in the first place. For example, Gladwell figured out that the problem with developing just one type of Coca-Cola or spaghetti sauce is that the same thing won’t appeal to everyone. Kamen took a similar approach. He found a problem – urban transportation that harms the environment and is not practical for the future – and worked to figure out an accessible solution.

Though Segways might not be seen regularly on the streets of Chicago today, who knows that the future could bring? With Kamen’s creative determination, we might be on the brink of a transportation revolution.

Interested in learning more about Kamen’s creative process? Watch ‘To Invent is To Give’ (2002) at right:

For more information about Dean Kamen, visit:
TED: Dean Kamen, Inventor
CBS News: Welcome to Dean Kamen's cool world
The Economist: Mr Segway's difficult path
Wired: Segway's Breakdown

1 comment:

  1. It is a dream of mine to drive a Segway. I'm not even joking. That being said, I also feel that they are just begging for the human race to become like the people in Walle. (Side note that I always hear he died on a Segway but never confirmed this to be true.)


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