Newsletter article by Judy Dorsey

Smithsonian Places of Invention Fort Collins FeatureIn June, I had the honor of attending the opening reception for the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention & Innovation at the National Museum of American History (the Smithsonian). The new hall features the Places of Invention exhibition, which aims to explore what it is about a certain place and time that sparks innovation in a particular field. Places of Invention features six communities from coast-to-coast across more than a 100-year span covering the rise of such topics as personal computing, hip-hop, and production manufacturing. I was there, in particular, to celebrate the inclusion of Fort Collins, Colorado as a modern-day example among the six communities for the rise of clean energy.

Arthur (Art) Molella, director of the center, talked about how innovation seems to be a new buzz all around the country, but really our nation has a long history of innovation, with the constitution being an innovation on past models for freedom itself. He also talked about how we tend to associate innovation with the big names in our country’s history – Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs – when really innovators are all around us every day in the communities in which we live. Even more inspiring, he talked about how innovation is a discovery in self-actualization and the potential within each and every one of us to create.

These remarks echoed conversations we have at Brendle Group on how to cultivate creativity and innovation among our team – as well as how to build this capacity in the communities and clients we serve. The brain-science of creativity is relatively new, but we no longer have to assume that the greatest inventors of our time somehow possessed special gifts from the gods. Rather, we now know that creativity is a skill to be developed. And we also know it’s somewhat of a team sport. A growing body of research helps the CEO tap these concepts.

After attending the event, I went back to some of the materials that have informed my thinking, wanting to reaffirm my professional commitment to innovation and figure out next steps. I’m reminded that creativity and innovation are an exercise in solving for the paradox. In Fort Collins we have two examples of exciting paradoxes that are driving new innovations in clean energy – first there’s FortZED, an initiative to convert downtown Fort Collins and the main campus of CSU into a net zero energy district; then more recently there’s one of the country’s most ambitious carbon reduction goals – to eliminate 80 percent of the carbon from our economy in the next 15 years. These two goals are paradoxes because they inherently contain conflicts and contradictions with how we do business today. Therefore, they offer both a promise and a risk to our quality of life and economic prosperity. Tackling these will take a high degree of innovation that solves for the paradox and doesn’t settle to have one outcome at the expense of others – but all beneficial outcomes, even those that appear to be in conflict on the surface.

Paradoxes, enigmas, brain teasers – these things are solved in part through insight – flashes of brilliance and breakthrough. How do we foster insight? Some things that help include cross-pollination of ideas, embracing outsiders new to a topic, and things that expand and relax our attention – like beer, bikes and general revelry and fun (hooray!). That said, creativity is a combination of insight and good old fashioned hard work. Research has now shown us that our brain has a built-in sense of whether we’re getting warmer or colder towards solving complex challenges. The mind has a ‘feeling of knowing’ that helps us to gauge when to give things a rest and when to push forward because we’re on the verge of a breakthrough.

After attending the Smithsonian reception last month, I definitely have the motivation to push on and make sure our legacy of clean energy lasts as long as motion pictures have for Hollywood and personal computing has for the Silicon Valley. What’s next? We’ll continue working on deploying even more creativity, insight, hard work, and innovation into our clean energy efforts.

To view the PBS documentary about Fort Collins as the example of 21st century innovation click here.