An Emerging Era of Vitalized Electricity: Q&A with Mark Levatich

At TEDMED 2014, Mark Levatich urged us to imagine the possibilities of a world vivified by electricity. Inspired by his enthusiasm, we reached out to him with questions about his talk, and any tips he has for young innovators.

"Electricity should be boring by now, but waves of revolution ripple up from initially small innovation to consume and transform our world.  Why, when we see the timeline, and the consistency of change, could we ever think the wonder is done?" - Mark Levatich at TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Kevork Djansezian]
“Electricity should be boring by now, but waves of revolution ripple up from initially small innovation to consume and transform our world. Why, when we see the timeline, and the consistency of change, could we ever think the wonder is done?” – Mark Levatich at TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Kevork Djansezian]

Why does your talk matter now? What do you hope people learn?

I knew my great-grandfather; he fought in WWI on horseback, and later lived in a household full of Apple products. We can imagine the transition of living in his world and expect the same scale of change in ours. The advances may not look rapid but we’re still rehashing the same tools of computers and programs. Leaps that challenge our imagination arise from fundamentally different abilities. That is why shape-changing plastic is primed to alter the course of human history. It can solve hundreds of existing problems, in unexpected, previously impossible ways. It also solves problems we didn’t recognize without an obvious solution. Nearly living plastic won’t be the final surprise during our lifetimes, but it’s primed to be the next.

In my talk, I described living plastic enhancing heart surgery, but I could have focused on braille, or keyboards, mice, drones, camera lenses, hearing aids, band-aid insulin pumps, capacitive batteries, bullet-sized tasers, electro-caloric heat sinks, ultrasonic tape, or woven sensors in clothes. The technology is already functional, but will see centuries of rehashing to creatively morph our world. It matters now because it will happen soon. It matters now because the pace of change is becoming mind-boggling, even for those of us now who are accustomed to surprise.

What advice would you give to other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?

If you are a young innovator, protect your naiveté and practice inception. As a budding innovator, you may find mentors and peers willing to help. I am sorry that their advice may be your greatest early challenge.

Any new skill takes repetition to master. Innovation by its nature should always yield conflicts with existing knowledge. To learn from a mentor’s advice, you must repeatedly sacrifice ideas. The sacrifice is active. It’s more than presenting concepts for appraisal. Ask your subject to share what their thoughts were just prior to their objection. Decipher the types of mental connections they used to crunch your idea, rather than source material. Meditating through and duplicating their thought process will permit you to absorb the strongest mental tools they have demonstrated. Repeating this process with diverse and accomplished people will allow you to compound the strengths of your mentors. In the end, the most important outcome is protecting your willingness to re-engage in deconstruction. Your naiveté makes your ideas vulnerable to overcorrection, and you must resist the social shock and keep practicing.

You may be presented with a plethora of unseen obstacles, a weakness of founding knowledge, an unrealistic sense of time, challenge, or concept placement in the existing landscape. All of these are irrelevant. The quality of your ideas matters only when you are primed to strike out and implement. Until that time comes, your goal should be to propose endless concepts. Exercise, through repetition, the mechanics of inception. The plentiful resource of criticism is not a crucible for your sword of conquest; it is, in fact, the hammer you wield to pound your innovation into shape.