A Unique Way to See the World: Skateboarders and Inventors

In December, I shared my experiences traveling to Orlando, Florida in 2011 to begin a new Lemelson Center initiative into the exploration of invention, innovation, and creativity in skateboarding culture.  Our work and research continued with a visit by skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen this past summer who spent a wonderful couple of days at the Lemelson Center discussing the role of innovation not only in skateboarding, but its critical importance to the larger society—both historically and in the future.

During his visit, Rodney graciously allowed us to record a video podcast which debuted this past December. The goal of the podcast was simply to let “Rodney be Rodney” and allow him the opportunity to explain his thought process and approach to skating and innovation. The response to the podcast has far exceeded our expectations with over 70,000 views so far. Of course, this is due to Rodney’s stature and popularity in the skateboarding community. But the posted comments to the video reveal that we are succeeding in establishing an important connection between skateboarding and innovation and between the skate community and the Lemelson Center. One the pure joys of working at the Lemelson Center is the opportunity to bring disparate groups of people together through the interdisciplinary connection of invention and innovation. This includes scholars with public audiences, young kids with inventors, and even skateboarders with museum professionals.

Rodney Mullen talks skateboarding and innovation.

Rodney shares some of his thoughts on skateboarding and innovation with me on the roof of the Museum.

As part of our continued work together, the Lemelson Center, in collaboration with the International Association of Skateboard Companies, plans to feature skate culture with a major public festival—Innoskate—on June 21 and 22, 2013, as an extension and compliment to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of global Go Skateboarding Day. Innoskate will celebrate invention and creativity by sharing skate culture’s widespread innovative spirit with the Museum’s public audiences. Innoskate activities will feature skate demonstrations, panel discussions, films, donations of skate objects to the national collections, and other programs to showcase the impact of skate culture’s innovations in American culture. (Stay tuned for more information to come.)

As part of the planning process, I had the pleasure to welcome Ryan Clements (of Excel Management and formerly of Skatepark of Tampa), to the Museum in early February. Ryan is a highly respected member of the skate industry and is playing a key role as part of the Innoskate planning committee. His insights and assistance have been extremely valuable. As part of our planning and discussions, we found ourselves on the Museum’s large plaza fronting the museum’s entrance on the National Mall. Most of Innoskate’s activities and programs will take place on the plaza in a large area that is defined by large planters, built-in benches, and a short set of stairs. Primarily, we were looking at this area because of our intention to install a mini-ramp here for skate demonstrations during Innoskate. But Ryan immediately saw the potential of the built environment, the surrounding architecture of benchers, planters, and such, for developing a “do-it-yourself” project of constructing ¼ pipes and placing them up and against the surrounding architecture to demonstrate various aspects of street skating. (This is a new addition to the program that we are actively pursuing.) But significantly, where I saw a place to sit, Ryan saw a place to skate and to create.

Benches outside the museum are a draw for skateboarders.

Just benches? Or a skater’s paradise?

Later that day, as Ryan and I were walking out of the Museum, we continued discussing the intersection of innovation and skateboarding and the role of “terrain” or the built environment in skate culture. As a skater, Ryan said that he was constantly thinking of new ways to skate the world around him. And it’s not just the stairs, hand rails, and curbs that present such opportunities, but just about anything and everything he sees—Ryan told me that he once tried to figure out how to skate a huge pile of dirt. In his effort to help me understand this phenomenon, Ryan explained that “skaters just view the world around them through a different lens than most others,” constantly using their own creativity and self-expression to move through their world.

Ryan’s observation literally stopped me in my tracks. His self-reflection about how skaters view and understand the world around them resonated deeply with how inventors often describe themselves.  Inventors often share a distinct mindset—a compulsion to solve problems and to find ways to improve the things around them. In particular, Jerry Lemelson, who founded the Lemelson Center with his wife, Dolly, has often been described as a man who couldn’t help but constantly think about how to improve the things he encountered in his world. It is not uncommon for inventors to state that they, too, view the world a bit differently than most others.

Tony Hawk donates skateboard to the Museum.

Tony Hawk signs deed of gift for his skatedeck in 2011. Curator Jane Rogers and I are standing by. Photo by Lee Leal, Embassy Skateboards

So does this correlation suggest that all skaters should start hiring patent attorneys or that all inventors should head out to the nearest skate shop for a new skateboard? Not necessarily—though of course there are skateboarders who are inventors and inventors who skate. But in the effort to illuminate the history of invention and to understand the factors that influence how, when, where, and why innovation occurs, we should take notice of the fact that highly creative and innovative people seem to share a common characteristic of being able to engage their world—not for what it is, but for what it has the potential to be.

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