Calling Smithsonian Affiliates!

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APPLY NOW BEFORE THE SEPTEMBER 1ST DEADLINE!

Become a part of this new model for the co-creation of exhibition content!

Join other Affiliates eager to share the different ways people, resources, and geography came together in their communities to forge hot spots of invention.

THE PROJECT

Selected Affiliates and their community partners explore the central message of the  Places of Invention exhibition—that invention is everywhere and sparked by unique combinations of people, resources, and surroundings. Teams, led by Affiliates, are asked to apply these themes to their own communities and create multiple deliverables, including videos, oral histories, and public programs.

Video deliverables include one or more short pieces synthesizing team findings. These pieces will become featured stories on the POI exhibition’s dynamic, large-scale interactive map in the center of the gallery. The map will be accessible from both the exhibition and web, allowing it to grow exponentially as visitors read, tag, and comment on Affiliate stories, even make use of the option to add their own images and videos.

Current stories being developed include:

The Illinois River, one of the most consistent and powerful influences on Peoria, IL innovation

Newark

One of the major glass companies in Newark, OH: The Holophane Co. Inc. Works

The Bronx, NY
Fort Collins, CO
Hartford, CT
Hollywood, CA
Huntsville, AL
Lowell, MA
Medical Alley, MN
Newark, OH
Peoria, IL
Pittsburgh, PA
Seattle, WA
Silicon Valley, CA

With your participation, we hope to have videos representing all regions of the United States when the Places of Invention exhibition opens in 2015 at the National Museum of American History.

WHAT KINDS OF INVENTION? ALL KINDS!! We’re interested in any new or improved way of doing things; in interdisciplinary stories of STEM-based invention and innovation through cross-pollination, including the bustling social spots where people shared and refined ideas; in the ways local people lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new.

We’re interested in a wide range of innovation: in green energy, medicine, education, transportation, and robotics; in the ways that art and music can intersect with technology, as with the electric guitar; in civil engineering, architecture, and construction; in agriculture—from seed cultivation to harvesting processes; in biotechnology that changed the way we eat, treat disease, and create alternative fuels; in communications and fiber-optics; in fabric technology—from 19th-century textile mills to high-performance synthetic fabrics worn by athletes today; in computers, software engineering, web technology, and social media; in business and advertising; in aeronautics, military production, and urban planning; and in the mass production of any kind of goods. Stories can be about current and historic innovation, as well as cycles of innovation spawned by a community’s infrastructure and natural resources repurposed over time.

REQUIREMENTS

Must be a Smithsonian Affiliate to be eligible

IMPORTANT DATES

Application Deadline: September 1, 2013
Winner Notification: October 4, 2013
DC Training: December 6, 2013
Final Deliverables Due: December 8, 2014

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Contact Anna Karvellas, Places of Invention Affiliates Project Coordinator, via email or by calling 202-633-4722.

Access her presentation from the Places of Invention panel at the 2013 Smithsonian Affiliations Conference, as well as those by the following Affiliates:

Documenting Gaming in Greater Seattle, Julia Swan, Adult Public Programs Manager, Museum of History and Industry

Inventing the Pittsburgh Sound, Kate A. Lukaszewicz, Lead Educator, Senator John Heinz History Center

NSF

Places of Invention has been made possible by a generous grant from the National Science Foundation 

Inspiring Bicycle Innovation

One of the best things about meeting inventors where they work is getting to see their spaces of inventions. How do companies design their buildings to encourage employees to be creative and inventive? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was designed with an “Infinite Corridor”—a hallway that runs through the main buildings of MIT—whose design encourages workers to bump into each other on their way from one place to another and share ideas. Keeping this in mind, I took special note of building design on a recent visit to Trek Bicycle’s headquarters in Waterloo, WI.

ExteriorTrek has created a bicycle-filled environment where employees always have bicycles on their minds and within sight. It begins even before arriving at work. Trek highly encourages its employees to commute by bicycle—a definite motivational challenge once the snow begins to fly. They also have an exercise room on site so that employees can continue to bike even when it does snow.

Trek emphasizes green energy, so it seems natural that the building uses on natural materials such as wood, natural lighting, and earth tone colors to create a comforting space and to help their workers think along ecological lines.

A cubical-style layout facilitates conversation among employees. If you think that this type of layout would have no room for bikes, think again. Almost every cubicle has its occupant’s bike parked outside of it. Not only are bikes typically parked outside them, but the work spaces also have bike components hanging above them. The building also offers many cork and white boards in public spaces for employees to quickly share their thoughts and ideas—and for others to read and be inspired by them.

APicture 001

APicture 002Trek’s headquarters contains a manufacturing section that allows designers to rapidly prototype ideas and concepts. Manufacturing on-site also allows them to wheel newly completed models next door to their photography studio. Housing their marketing and PR team alongside everyone else allows for and in-depth understanding of the products they market. Also, being located on the limits of a small town gives Trek employees the advantage of easily wheeling out new bikes for a test ride.

Trek has created a space to inspire bicycle innovation—literally surrounding employees with bicycles, from the individual components to the final, complete form.

Trek was the first company to incorporate carbon fiber into their bike frames and is also the first bicycle company to explore recycling carbon fiber bike frames. In our latest podcast, Jim Colegrove, senior composites manufacturing engineer at Trek, describes the evolution of carbon fiber frames at Trek and discusses how Trek inventors work together to create a better ride.

Nikola Tesla’s Place of Invention

Today we host a lecture by noted historian and Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson in which he will explore Tesla’s visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.

In a blog post on Gotham Center, Carlson writes about Tesla’s place of invention, Manhattan:

Leonardo da Vinci’s studio in Milan. Thomas Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey.  Jobs and Wozniak in the family garage in Los Altos, California.  Although we tend to think about creativity as an abstract, cerebral process, invention actually takes place in specific locations that inform the design and content of a device.  For Nikola Tesla, nearly all of his creative work took place in Manhattan, and where he worked, lived, and played profoundly shaped his inventions.

Read more about Tesla’s relationship with New York City.

Inventing for the Environment

The northwest coast of Iceland in January is a stunningly beautiful place. Waterfalls tumble over steep cliff edges, forming rainbows in their spray. The clear, crisp blue of the sky reaches down to the even deeper blues of the fjords. Volcanoes dot the landscape, boiling pits of mud and minerals the colors of agate fill the air with the smell of sulfur, and it seems that steam leaks from the smallest cracks in the earth wherever you go. And this year, the snow sat in islands surrounded by lava and moss.

Icelandic horses grazing

Icelandic horses grazing near Akureyri in January 2013. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Like most visitors, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty and bounties of Iceland—the bracing clean water, the fresh seafood, and the abundant geothermal power. As I traveled around, I heard Icelanders express their gratitude for these resources and affirm their deep connection to their natural environment. But they also talked about changes that their land is experiencing, from higher winter temperatures to the increased economic importance of mackerel to the fishing industry as warmer ocean temperatures bring these fish farther north.

Mud, minerals, and sulfur in Iceland.

Mud, minerals, and the smell of sulfur in the Icelandic landscape, January 2013. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

The perspectives of the people who live in Iceland reflect this year’s theme for Earth Day on April 22: “The Face of Climate Change.” People around the world are submitting photos and comments to the Earth Day website, offering their personal observations on climate change and their dedication to doing something about it. Looking through those images and reading the thoughts of so many people from so many places made me think not only about Iceland but also about another place closer to home.

Horsetooth Reservoir, Fort Collins, Colorado

Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, Colorado, June 2012. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Last summer I traveled to Fort Collins, Colorado, for a week of research on developments in cleaner, more sustainable energy sources (we will be featuring Fort Collins in the Lemelson Center’s upcoming Places of Invention exhibition). The people I interviewed there shared the feelings of responsibility for the environment that I had witnessed in Iceland. I also saw firsthand their efforts to effect change through invention and innovation.

Amy Prieto, Colorado State University

Inventor Amy Prieto in her lab at Colorado State University, June 2012. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

One of the inventors I met was Amy Prieto, an associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University and the founder of Prieto Battery. Her work centers on inventing a rechargeable battery that will last longer, charge faster, and won’t be made with toxic materials. Still in the prototype stage, the heart of the battery is a thin slice of copper “foam” that, like a sponge, is full of holes. This 3-dimensional structure increases the amount of surface area and allows electrons to move more freely and over shorter distances than in conventional batteries. This means that the Prieto battery is expected to last longer and recharge faster than traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Prieto battery components

Some components of Prieto’s prototype battery, June 2012. Rectangles of copper “foam” are top center. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Prieto’s work represents a new way of thinking about batteries. “The journey is an exciting one and one we believe in,” the team at Prieto Battery asserts. “Beyond changing how people power their lives, Prieto Battery believes strongly in retaining why we started in the first place—a diverse, highly collaborative, environmentally conscious team driven to deliver on our promise to create the world’s most advanced rechargeable battery. This is what powers us.”

Amy Prieto will soon be sharing that driving sense of commitment—to teammates, to invention, to the environment—with a group of elementary-school students in Mississippi. Last fall, the Lemelson Center’s hands-on invention center, Spark!Lab, partnered with ePals, an education media company and safe social learning network, for the second annual “Invent It! Challenge.” The contest asked students to think about real-world problems and invent something that could help solve them. The ePals Choice Award went to the “Solbrite,” a “solar-panel purse LED light,” invented by a 9-year-old girl named Marlee. Her prize is a video chat for her and her classmates with inventor Amy Prieto.

From the shores of northern Iceland and the valleys of the Colorado Rockies to a classroom in Mississippi, invention and innovation remain important tools for conserving natural resources, reducing pollution, and confronting global climate change. Who knows, perhaps a Prieto battery will be part of the “Solbrite” one day.

Innovating Jazz: The Pittsburgh Sound

IMG_0002

Mary Lou Williams’ piano, c. 1940s, on view in a re-creation of the Crawford Grill in the Senator John Heinz History Center’s exhibition, “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation”

It’s no wonder that a unique jazz sound emerged from Pittsburgh. The city has a hum and a buzz, a palpable energy that resonates in its landscape, social spaces, and multitude of people. My colleague Ken Kimery—Executive Producer of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and Program Director of our Jazz Oral History Program—tells me the sound is unmistakeable. That you instantly recognize the city’s voice and feel in the placement of the beats of Kenny Clarke’s, Art Blakey’s, and Roger Humphries drums. In Stanley Turrentine’s saxophone. In Billy Strayhorn’s compositional techniques and the musical dialects produced through jazz session group dynamics.

 

Kenny Clarke Quartet

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9z9sU5dXnw

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qywMA_vrvsc

Check out the Roger Humphries drum solo at 3:25

I recently went to Pittsburgh wanting to know more about this sound for the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention (POI) Affiliates Pilot Project. When the POI exhibition opens in 2015, the story of Pittsburgh jazz innovation will be featured on a large, digital interactive map at the center of the exhibition and website. The Senator John Heinz History Center, one of our most active Smithsonian Affiliate museums, is creating content for the project with Dan Holland of the Young Preservationists’ Association of Pittsburgh. The story will focus on the 1920s–1960s. Ken Kimery and Marty Ashby, Executive Producer of Pittsburgh’s MCG Jazz, are advising the team, directing them to additional experts and resources and making available oral histories and other multimedia. When the exhibition opens, the public will have opportunities to comment on the story and add recollections of their own, making the map another repository for the growing body of documentation about the city’s jazz history. We’re especially eager to see material posted by the Pittsburgh jazz and preservation communities.

The thesis of the POI exhibition is that place and community matter; that advantages and limitations of geography and resources drive innovation when combined with new ideas shared and refined through social networks. If I had any questions about Pittsburgh geography, they were answered on my drive into the city to visit the POI team. My car went up and down and around steep hills, past rocky slopes, and over railroad tracks and wide rivers moving large chunks of ice. As I wound through neighborhoods of brick houses, I couldn’t help but lean into each curve and think of the geology that helped drive the city’s famous steel and glass industries. Buildings I passed on rocky outcroppings looked more like cliff dwellings than urban homes.

Clockwise from top left: Crawford Grill sign, Art Blakey House, Crawford Grill, August Wilson House

Clockwise from top left: Crawford Grill sign, Art Blakey House, Crawford Grill, August Wilson House

I learned even more about Pittsburgh’s landscape on a tour of the city’s Hill District led by Dan Holland. His knowledge of the area—the things that live even when the physical structure might be gone—was not only impressive but also moving. Smithsonian Affiliations’ Jennifer Brundage and the Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszwewicz also joined and provided helpful insight. As we passed the homes of Art Blakey and August Wilson, we saw storefronts and row houses clumped together on otherwise razed blocks. The Crawford Grill nightclub held its own on a street corner behind a blue historical marker. At the New Granada Theater on Centre Avenue, signs of community involvement and recovery were evident.

Details of the New Granada Theater, originally built as a Pythian Temple in 1927 for the Knights of Pythias, an lodge for African American craftsmen.

Details of the New Granada Theater featuring Pittsburgh jazz legends. The building was originally built as a Pythian Temple for the Knights of Pythias, an African American craftsmen lodge.

Dan also took us to a special spot on the Hill for the tour’s most dramatic view: a panorama of “the city of bridges.”

View of the Strip from the Hill: The Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz with the Smithsonian’s Jennifer Brundage and YPA’s Dan Holland. Remains of old funicular to the right. Allegheny River in the background. Zoom in for detail.

View of the Strip from the Hill: The Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz with the Smithsonian’s Jennifer Brundage and YPA’s Dan Holland. Remains of old funicular to the right. Allegheny River in the background. Zoom in for detail.

Nearby, we could see the remains of the old Penn funicular from a time when gravity planes transported coal and people up and down the Hill to the Strip District.

Click on the image to go to “Pittsburgh Then and Now,” a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette site. Photo copyright 2004 Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive.

Click on the image to go to “Pittsburgh Then and Now,” a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette site. Photo copyright 2004 Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive.

So how did the city’s geography, community, and networks shape Pittsburgh jazz? Our team is exploring this question in detail, taking into account the research and documentation that has been lovingly preserved in its cultural institutions. Does it come from the people dining with—celebrating with—worshipping with—playing with—laughing with—surviving with each other in segregated Pittsburgh? From a strong African American middle class with money to spend at the lively social spots that lined the Hill? From the mix of ethnicities that came to live and work together? From the many schools and institutions promoting music education? From the building trades-inspired apprenticeship system? From the clubs serving mill workers whose shifts ran around the clock? From the artists who could actually make a living performing and teaching in the city? From the visiting musicians bringing new ideas and inspiration to the music scene while on layovers between New York, Chicago and New Orleans?

Or was it something else? The very rhythm of the city itself? Can the answer be found in Teenie Harris’ photographs of musicians and good-timers packed into the Crawford Grill and Goode’s Pharmacy? In images of children in classrooms clapping to live piano or playing brass instruments and bongos on the street? In performance shots of Roy Eldridge blasting his trumpet, Art Blakey on drums, a

teenie

Boys, possibly from Herron Hill School, playing brass instruments on steps, circa 1938-€“1945. Charles “Teenie” Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Click on image for NPR’s story “The Big Legacy of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris” about the photographer and the opening of a CMA exhibition of his work in 2011.

young Ahmad Jamal at the piano, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn backstage at the Stanley Theater? In the movement of the dancers and Lena Horne captured in a night at the Loendi Club? In Mary Lou Williams sitting at the Syria Mosque’s piano, surrounded by Earl “Fatha” Hines, Erroll Garner, Billy Eckstine, and Maxine Sullivan?

Ahmad Jamal Trio

Renée Govanucci and Marty Ashby (MCG Jazz), Dan Holland, and Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz (Heinz History Center). The team met to brainstorm and think about collaborative opportunities between the Heinz History Center, MCG Jazz, the Lemelson Center, and the broader Smithsonian.

Renée Govanucci and Marty Ashby (MCG Jazz), Dan Holland (YPA), and Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz (Heinz History Center). The team met to discuss the POI project and collaborative opportunities.

My colleagues and I are enthusiastic to learn more and see how the Pittsburgh POI team develops its story. My trip was deeply rewarding and full of exuberant conversations about the project and the importance of telling this often overlooked story of Pittsburgh invention. We welcome all to join us as we celebrate the ongoing innovation of the Pittsburgh jazz sound.

 

Spaces of Invention

Faculty and students all over the country are transforming their learning spaces into Places of Invention.

How do we know?

On March 22, the Lemelson Center hosted our partner NCIIA (National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance) and a student invention showcase, part their annual conference, Open Minds. Part of the program was “Spaces of Invention,” six Ignite talks by students and faculty who describe their Design Kitchens and maker spaces from the collegiate through K-12 arenas. Speakers include:

Inventing an Exhibition, Part II

Last summer I wrote a blog post about the 10% preliminary design phase of the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention project and how exhibition development often mirrors the inventive process. In those early days of working with our exhibition design firm Roto we focused on the “Sketch It!” step, relying on their expertise to bring visual life to our highly researched, content-rich, but conceptually abstract topic.  At the end of this official 10% design phase we had an exhibition floor plan, artistic renderings, and fun art direction boards for a concrete and colorful manifestation of our exhibition that we could share with project stakeholders and potential funders.

Invention Process Infographic

The “Create It!” step of the invention process next came into play. The second official phase of Smithsonian exhibition planning is called “35% conceptual design,” and for Places of Invention this phase began in October 2012 and runs through the end of March 2013. Now the Lemelson Center/NMAH-Roto team is collaborating to hone details of the design, including detailed floor plan, object layouts, graphics, typography, colors, lighting and acoustic-abatement needs, and specifications for mechanical interactives and multimedia. This is also the time for preliminary estimates for how much all of these elements are going to cost, which is where the proverbial rubber meets the road for decision making as we move forward.

The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of "Places of Invention" come to life.

The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of “Places of Invention” come to life.

During the 35% design period of any exhibition’s development, I believe it is very important to conduct formative evaluation, which Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A) defines as testing “interpretive ideas and components for their functionality and ability to communicate content.” This could be termed the “Test It!” invention step. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation grant for Places of Invention supports three stages of evaluation: front-end (which RK&A conducted in summer and fall 2011); formative (two phases during 2013); and summative (at the end of the project).

The prototyping process featuring two case studies--Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.

The prototyping process featuring two case studies–Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.

So, we brought Roto and RK&A together and came up with a plan to do a first round of formative evaluation prototyping at NMAH during late January. Although this is generally a slower time at the Museum, with fewer tourist traveling to the nation’s capital between the winter holidays and spring breaks, we had the advantage of two major events coinciding—President Barak Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday—that attracted many thousands of visitors. We figured enough people would hang around afterwards to visit the famous local sites, including the Smithsonian museums on the Mall, to garner walk-in visitors willing to participate in our evaluation.

In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder--or whatever else they could invent!

In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder–or whatever else they could invent!

Over three days, January 23-25, staff from Lemelson Center, Roto, and RK&A collaborated to conduct formative testing. We mocked up two exhibition case studies—Hartford, Connecticut and Hollywood, California— and also the “Interactive Map,” a participatory exhibit that asked visitors to share stories of their places of invention by writing comments to post on a U.S. map or by taping short videos on a laptop computer. The basic evaluation objectives were to explore general usability and understanding of intended exhibition messages. RK&A recruited walk-in adult visitors who were visiting alone or with children 10 years and older. RK&A then observed these visitor groups while they used the exhibition elements, including reading labels, looking at images, trying out interactives, and watching videos inside the case study areas and at the Map. Finally, RK&A interviewed the visitors and recorded data in handwritten notes. At the end of each day of prototyping, folks from the Lemelson, Roto, and RK&A teams gathered to discuss visitor feedback and interactions in order to “Tweak It!” for the next day. It was a fun, constructive, and exhausting process.

On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.

On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.

We recently received the final report from RK&A, which includes careful analysis of the visitor observations and interviews and very constructive recommendations. This document has already helped us focus on key changes and improvements to the exhibition (the “Tweak It!” stage) while also provided us with enough objective information to know we are headed in the right direction. So onward we go through the final weeks of conceptual design, and then we can look forward to the “65% design development” phase through fall 2013. Keep an eye out for more reports from me along the way!

Eco-Cities: Can They Work?

From time to time in earlier columns, I have reported on the rising global phenomenon of eco-cities, an urban innovation touted as one of the solutions to conjoined problems of urban sustainability, environmental degradation, and climate change. While eco-cities were proposed as early as the 1970s, they have only become real in the last decade or so, with announcements of the construction of model eco-cities Dongtan, near Shanghai, China, and Masdar, near Abu Dhabi, UAE. Hundreds more are now underway or about to be launched worldwide. But can these cities really do the job their advocates claim they will? Along with Westminster University (UK) and the Johns Hopkins University, the Lemelson Center is co-sponsor of the International Eco-City Initiative.  Among the products of the collaboration is a new study of eco-city standards, which attempt to put these new cities to the test.

“Tomorrow’s City Today—Eco-City Indicators, Standards & Framework”

This recently published Bellagio conference report addresses a key area of contemporary sustainability research and policy: how to define “indicators” and “standards” for sustainable cities, or “eco-cities.” I interviewed the report’s editor, Simon Joss of the University of Westminster.

 

What are eco-cities and why are they important?

Ideas and propositions about eco-cities have been around for at least three decades, and the last five years or so have seen a considerable global mushrooming of practical eco-city initiatives. In the recent survey carried out by our research group, we identified at least 178 eco-city projects globally, although this may be a conservative figure: in China alone, there are reportedly over 250 cities embarked on eco-city development!

That said, defining the eco-city is challenging, for both theoretical and practical reasons. Conceptually, beyond the general idea of eco-cities being more sustainable than current “conventional” cities, it is quite difficult to settle on specifics. There is no agreed norm or standard of what counts as an eco-city. Even agreeing on the basic balance between environmental, economic, and social goals of sustainability can be tricky. Practically, the fact that eco-city initiatives are applied in often vastly different national, cultural, and economic contexts means that they end up taking diverse forms and shapes: a city generating ten per cent renewable energy may be ambitious in, say, India, while the threshold is typically much higher in European cities, such as Freiburg (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden), with several decades more experience.

However, there are some general, global trends that I think drive current eco-city innovation, against the background of the dual challenges of global climate change and rapid urbanization (in 2008, for the first time in human history the majority of people lived in cities), particularly in Asia and Africa. Among these is the policy of “ecological modernization” which seeks to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. An illustrative example here is the World Bank’s Eco2 Cities initiative which goes by the slogan “environmental city as economic city.” Another trend is increasing international knowledge transfer, with international architecture, technology, and engineering firms playing a central role. Furthermore, the “carbon” discourse has become a core characteristic of the modern eco-city, as illustrated by terms such as “low-carbon,” “zero-carbon” or “carbon-neutral” cities. In this sense, the eco-city has become more ubiquitous in comparison to earlier examples from the 1970s and 1980s which were much more locally defined.

Wind farm at Caofeidian International Eco-City, about 50 miles south of the port city of Tangshan and somewhat farther from Beijing. Courtesy of SWECO.

Where is the major action today in building eco-cities?

If I had to pick one global region, I would choose Asia, where a whole range of new eco-city initiatives have been launched within just the last few years. As mentioned, this is mainly due to the unprecedented urbanization occurring there—China is said to have to build a new city of the size of New York every year for the next twenty years to accommodate people migrating into urban areas. Similar developments can be observed in India, Indonesia, and Africa. A further factor that I witnessed on visits to China and South Korea is the determination to be at the forefront of technological innovation: one really gets the sense that the new urban age is being shaped in and across Asia.

Of course, innovation in sustainable urbanism is currently also taking place in many European and North as well as South American cities. The recent eco-city initiative of Alexandria (VA), or the eco-districts in Portland (OR) may not be on as large a scale as Masdar (United Arab Emirates) or Sejong (South Korea), but they are just as illustrative of the global attempt to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Artist Impression- Aerial View of Proposed Master plan of Masdar City (Eastern Orientation). Courtesy of Masdar City.

Why should we care about “standards” and “indicators”? In fact, what are they and what problems are they supposed to address?

History teaches us that once in a while a process of consolidation and standardization occurs, often as a result of technological innovation: for example, in the late 19th century when the increasingly ubiquitous application of electricity in daily life prompted the need to develop standardized electrical power systems (though we still often have to pack adaptors when traveling abroad!). Similarly, as more and more cities, businesses, and political organizations strive to implement sustainable strategies and practices, at some point the need arises to develop a “common language.” Otherwise, how can we agree on a bottom line and framework for sustainable cities? It is for this reason that there has been a recent flurry of eco-city indicators, standards, and frameworks. While this is partly driven by efforts by scientists and policy-makers trying to define various aspects of urban sustainability, it is no doubt also driven by business interests aimed at marketing urban sustainability as a “product.”

Our new research initiative, which involves the Lemelson Center along with several other partners across the world, aims to contribute to this emerging debate. We are interested in mapping the various approaches to eco-city indicators and standards—there are so many schemes that we first need to take stock of what is out there—followed by in-depth analysis of how individual approaches actually work: how they contribute to defining sustainable urbanism, guiding policy implementation, and encouraging practice learning among scientists, policy-makers, planners, business, and citizens.

One of the challenges our project will have to grapple with is at which level indicators and standards are most appropriate. Perhaps expecting standards or frameworks to emerge at the global level is unrealistic, given the vastly different local contexts of cities across the world. Then again, reducing carbon emissions is a global concern, which suggests the need for comparable, international measures.

Apart from generating knowledge, we hope that our research will also directly contribute to policy debate and practice innovation. For example, one of our partners is the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Positive Development Program, through which we will have access to, and will be in dialogue with, cities across the world.

London Building With Integrated Wind Turbines. Photo by Christine Matthews, via Wikimedia Commons.

What is and should be the role of technological and other sorts of innovation in the development of eco-cities?

Engineering and technology firms have increasingly become centrally involved in developing eco-city indicators and frameworks. The reason is obvious: cities are one of the main sources of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. So, attempting to effect a transition to a low-carbon economy, one inevitably has to address urban development. Given this focus on energy, it is no surprise that technological innovation is to the fore. At the same time, increasingly various “smart” urban technology solutions, based on information and communication technologies, are applied to manage urban infrastructure and services. Together, these open up huge business opportunities: hence, the current jostling among international technology firms for a market share in urban development. However, as a political scientist, I would add a word of caution: a city is not just a “system,” and not just made of infrastructure; it is also a center of social, cultural, and political activity. Therefore, we surely also need social and cultural entrepreneurs to get involved in eco-city innovation!

Sound and Vision

Editors Note: This is a follow-up to “It’s in the Details,” Anna’s recent blog about fiber artist Timothy Westbrook and his use of repurposed materials. Originally from upstate New York, Westbrook has enjoyed becoming part of Milwaukee’s robust arts community, itself at the center of a vibrant place of invention

Donated audio cassette tapes in Westbrook's studio

 

Westbrook's "The Unicorn Maiden" comprised of woven cassette tape with cotton, blue velvet curtains, bed sheets, a Victorian hand-embroidered curtain, and a Victorian unicorn button. Modeled by Raquel and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

“Blue, blue/
electric blue/
that’s the color/
of my room/
where I will live— /
blue, blue—”

These lyrics from David Bowie‘s “Sound and Vision” have been lolling through my mind ever since I began thinking about the hand-woven cassette tapes in Timothy Westbrook‘s
designs. If it wasn’t for Bowie, after all, or the Clash or the Ramones or Troublefunk (you get the picture), I might not have felt such a familiar and sentimental pull towards Westbrook’s use of crinkly, sparkly, magnetic cassette tape. Who knew that old cassettes full of hiss could LOOK so good. Recognizing the tape in Westbrook’s jackets, dresses, and scarves was like seeing an old friend in a new context. In Westbrook’s Pfister Hotel studio, once-loved tape was woven into shimmering new life with pearl cotton, wool, and blended silk bamboo.

For those who remember, cassettes were high-maintenance friends: easily degraded by heat and humidity, often stuck in Walkmans, and with a tendency to spew ribbons of crumpled tape that had to be carefully rewound with a pencil. (This was best-case scenario: more often, the tape was mangled.) You work with what you have and I loved that technology. Soundtracks, mix tapes, and “cassingles” got me through.

Where do all the old “new technologies” like cassette tape go, though? I often think about that here at the Lemelson Center where we study innovative technology that supplants the old. While collections documenting the history of invention are carefully preserved by the Smithsonian and its counterparts, cassettes mostly go from shoe boxes to giant landfills where they degrade and leach pollutants into our water table and get into our food chain.

Details of Westbrook's woven cassette tape

Thankfully, artists like Westbrook are inspired to re-think this cycle and imagine how materials can be repurposed. Each of his gowns, for example, use between 6 and 12 yards of cassette tape. He makes it a point to never use virgin materials: “The goal is zero-waste which is often confused as ‘take this rectangular fabric and make a muumuu wrap dress.’ I simply mean do not throw anything away that is not biodegradable.”

Naysayers who think eco-friendly/sustainable fashion means burlap and muumuus will be more than surprised when they see Westbrook’s holiday dress. Made from a combination of gospel and holiday tapes, wire hangers, roses, grommets, and a Mrs. Claus costume, the materials inspire humor and play a metaphorical role in the visual story of the dress. Varying tape colors add visual depth.

The "Alexis Rose" holiday dress made of gospel and holiday-themed audio cassette tapes, red velvet from a Mrs. Claus costume, wire hangers, and donated grommets filled with roses. Sue Lawton's "Willow Tree" is in the background.

The relationship between sound and vision is not only a constant in Westbrook’s work—it also is the inspiration for his experimentation with audio tape. As a child, time spent listening to books-on-tape with his blind grandfather made him think about ways that sensory experiences could be translated. What if the books they listened to could be transformed back into something visual that could be understood through touch?

"The Stripe" (right) with woven cassette tape and a cotton and vintage chiffon curtain. Modeled by Michael and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Asked about the challenges of his medium, Westbrook muses, “I don’t really have problems with the cassette tapes—only inspiration. The story is in the wording: cassette tape is a kind of ribbon. So where else do we hear ‘yarn, thread, string, rope, ribbon’? Fabric. Weaving. What are other related things? Line, floss, string—violin string!—electric wire, silk. All of a sudden new materials make themselves available.”

His ability to look at things differently—to see all of the preceding materials as monofilaments to be woven, for example—keeps Westbrook’s work evolving. Strong mathematical ability and a fertile imagination stoke this fire, even allowing him to think about similarities between the sensorial process of weaving and playing audio cassettes reel to reel.

"The Femme Nouvelle" made with woven cassette tape and wool and a scarf made with woven plastic bags and cotton. Modeled by Layna and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

So what next? Coming off a successful final gallery night show at the Pfister Hotel, Westbrook is winding down his time as Artist-in-Residence. He plans to stay in Milwaukee where he will continue to explore new ways to create sustainable, low-impact works that challenge established ideas about luxury and beauty in our disposable culture. He is innately good at connecting different people, ideas, and industries together—an important figure in any thriving place of invention—and I expect we will hear remarkable things about the community-focused projects he and collaborator Alexis Rose have on the horizon.

Alexis Rose and Westbrook at his final gallery night show. Rose styled the show and was its creative director. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Earlier today, New Yorkers had a chance to hear Westbrook speak at the GreenBizForum about every object’s potential reuse. 

Special thanks to BarelyPractical.com.

Yankee Ingenuity Part II: The Inventors of Hartford

Editor’s Note: Hartford is a featured case study in our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. For more on Hartford as an invention hot spot, read Part I of Yankee Ingenuity.

In the 1800s, New England (and Connecticut in particular) was the home to dozens of iconic inventors, including Hartford’s Samuel Colt, Hamden’s Eli Whitney and New Haven’s Charles Goodyear—not to mention hundreds of lesser-known, but highly skilled machinists and toolmakers who worked in the region’s factories and shop floors to continually improve their manufacturing processes. Hartford is a microcosm of that larger story. In just a few blocks in downtown Hartford, you can see how the methods of precision, interchangeable parts manufacturing spread from firm to firm and industry and to industry—from arms-making to sewing machines to typewriters to bicycles and automobiles, creating a real hot spot of innovation.

Some notable inventors from Hartford at this time:

Samuel Colt, 1859, courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

Samuel Colt is the reason we are still talking about Hartford today. A Hartford native, he patented his namesake revolver in 1835-1836, but his real innovation was perfecting a precision manufacturing system that allowed him to mass produce 1000 identical copies of his design with interchangeable parts. He was a brilliant inventor and a manufacturing genius, but he was an even greater promoter of his business. He would shower liquor and lavish gifts on Army generals, schmoozing them to secure arms contracts in a way that would make us blanch today. Colt was an equal opportunity salesman—in the years before the Civil War, he sold arms to both the Northern and Southern states. He traveled to Europe and sold arms to both the British and Russian governments, arming both sides of the Crimean War. He was incredibly wealthy, brash and larger than life, with expensive tastes in art—like a modern day Larry Ellison or Richard Branson.

Albert Pope, circa 1900, courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.

Albert Pope was a Boston entrepreneur who first saw a high-wheel bicycle at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. These were imported from England, but Pope was determined to manufacture bicycles in the United States. After securing patent rights in the U.S., he arrived in Hartford in 1878 and contracted with the Weed Sewing Machine factory to build his bicycles. Eventually the bicycle business became so lucrative that Pope bought out Weed. Eventually in the 1890s, Pope also began making steam, gasoline, and electric cars in Hartford.

Christopher M. Spencer, circa 1863, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Christopher Spencer was a serial inventor and entrepreneur who worked across a number of industries. He invented a winding machine for silk thread, a repeating rifle that Abraham Lincoln personally tested and adopted for the Union Army during the Civil War, and an automatic screw-making machine.

Mark Twain, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Mark Twain was the quintessential American humorist and author of the 19th century—he was famous all over the world—but most people don’t know that he was also an inventor. He secured three patents: a men’s garment that worked like suspenders, a self-pasting scrapbook with pre-glued pages, and a type of historical board game, much like Trivial Pursuit. He was also a failed venture capitalist, who nearly lost everything when he unwisely invested in a failed typesetting machine that he thought would revolutionize the printing business. (When I was in Hartford, I got to visit his historic home in the Nook Farm neighborhood and see Twain’s “man cave”—he had an upstairs room where he and his friends would play billiards, smoke cigars, and drink brandy. In the corner was a little writing desk where he wrote all of those classic novels.)

Colt employees on the shop floor, circa 1900, courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

It’s easy to learn things about a famous industrialist like Samuel Colt or Albert Pope, but much harder to find information about the folks who worked for them. It’s been difficult to understand what life was like for the average machinist or engineer who worked on the shop floor in one of Hartford’s many factories. I would love to know, for example, what it was like to work at Colt’s armory. What was the experience of living in the Coltsville factory neighborhood—to play in the Colt band, to play on the Colt baseball team, or to attend dances at Charter Oak Hall? Unfortunately, there are hardly any first-person accounts of the city’s workers. This is especially true of immigrant workers; many were not literate in English and left few records.