The Recipe for Innovation Calls for a Little Chaos and Some Wall Bashing

Scholar Art Molella chronicles the habits, habitats and behaviors of the men and women who invent

When someone like Art Molella goes searching for the right recipe for ingenuity, he attacks the problem like any scientist seeking a solution. Molella, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, recently delivered an address, shown in the above video, at a scholar’s colloquium in the Castle Building in Washington, D.C.

Molella spoke of his journey to find the answer to the question, "What are the habits and habitats that cultivate invention?" He and his team learned from award-winning robotics engineer James McLurkin, now at Rice University, that ingenuity cannot be constrained. Invention requires flexibility. “You have to be empowered to modify the world around you in any way that you want,” Molella told his audience. 

After a visit to the wildly creative and eclectic basement laboratory belonging to Chuck Popenoe, a former physicist from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Molella learned that ingenuity requires playful spaces. (The Lemelson Center is renowned for its popular hands-on children’s workshop “Spark!Lab," which will reopen to the public this summer after undergoing a renovation; the Center also created the exhibition “Invention at Play,” which has been enjoyed by some 3.7 million visitors and has toured 22 venues around the United States and Canada.)

He learned from Wilson Greatbatch, who created an implantable pace maker and holds more than 300 patents, that a creative mind also needs balance, “a place to think” that provides “solitude and serendipity.” Molella also preached, however, for a certain kind of creative chaos, recognizing that disorder proves a useful environment for the mind to range about and make connections. 

“The lone inventor was the great figure of American ingenuity,” Molella once told Smithsonian, “until the greatest American inventor, Thomas Edison, invented the research lab.” These became habitats of invention. Laboratories, like the Jonas Salk Institute in LaJolla, California, the Janelia Farm in Ashburn, Virginia, part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as well as Bell Labs, Molella said, hired architects and engineers to mastermind the kinds of environments and spaces that promoted creativity.

But a researcher, who worked at MIT's Radiation Lab, thought it was overkill. If he needed to reconfigure a space, he told Molella, he simply kicked down the wall.

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