By Judy Dorsey

Last month 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.

Smithsonian Places of Invention Entrance While it was a huge honor and honestly a really fun experience, I admit I had mixed thoughts on what I was doing there – is Judy Dorsey and my work at Brendle Group a real driver within Fort Collins’ clean energy innovation economy? For that matter – why Fort Collins?  Is Fort Collins different from other communities making innovative strides in clean energy?  After all, Jerome Lemelson was one of our country’s most prolific inventors with over 600 patents – is this what he had in mind in advocating for the individual innovator and fostering a culture of innovation in communities across our country?

After hearing Arthur (Art) Molella, director of the center speak at the opening event, I felt reassured that I was in the right place. Fort Collins and Brendle Group’s contributions to Fort Collins’ clean energy efforts really are historic.  Not singularly historic – but certainly a cutting-edge example of how places inspire innovation on important topics throughout our American history. I was inspired by the vision that Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson had for the Hall and the passion and professional discipline Art and his staff took carrying out that vision.

Art 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 in Fort Collins 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.

Smithsonian Places of Invention Fort Collins FeatureParadoxes, 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 for Fort Collins!). That said, creativity is a combination of insight and good old fashioned hard work. If anything, Fort Collins is a great example of work ethic. Between our state land grant university, our agricultural roots and more recently our nationally recognized results in fostering entrepreneurship, hard work is part of our DNA – it always has been and still is. 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. In Fort Collins, what do we do when our ‘feeling of knowing’ says we need more insight?  We socialize outside of work with our network to expand our volume of experience while relaxing our attachments to what we think we know.

Joyce Bedi, the Smithsonian Senior Historian that covered the Fort Collins segment of the new exhibition, commented that in her search for a contemporary example of a place of invention, Fort Collins stood out because we provided a clear picture of how community-based innovation works. Specifically, in clean energy we know each other, genuinely like to work together, and we exhibit strong collaboration and communication. Of course the challenge is that places of invention have an uncertainty of ‘will this last.’ A question that can either be a negative force of despair or a positive motivator to push on.

Smithsonian Places of Invention Fort Collins groupAfter 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?  Not surprisingly, following the Smithsonian event, four of the six of us that could make it started the ‘what’s-next’ conversation over a mix of Colorado beverages. We plan to convene all six of us (myself, Bryan Willson from Colorado State University, Amy Prieto also from Colorado State University, Sunil Cherian founder of Spirae, Ed VanDyne founder of Vandyne Super Turbo, and Kim Jordan co-founder of New Belgium Brewing) in the Fort Collins exhibition into an Innovators’ Circle, and to grow the circle with outwardly rippling networks. We’ll get to work deploying even more creativity, insight, hard work, and innovation into Fort Collins’ clean energy efforts, including driving carbon from our economy and realizing the vision of FortZED.

Judy Dorsey, Brendle Group PresidentAbout the author – Judy is a valued collaborator offering 21 years of executive leadership in sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship.  Her specialties include district-scale and community-scale planning in climate and energy, clean energy, sustainable economic development, organizational development, and net zero energy and water initiatives.  She has led the completion of 200+ sustainability projects for over 100 clients across 20 states including over a dozen energy plans for some of the nation’s most progressive communities and major cities.

Over the past 16 years, Judy grew Brendle Group’s five practice areas and four sectors into an award-winning consulting group. She co-founded the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster and helped spearhead two of its primary initiatives – the International Cleantech Network, a global network connecting the world’s leading cleantech clusters; and FortZED, an initiative to create one of the world’s largest active net zero energy districts.