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.

Yankee Ingenuity: Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford, Connecticut, is a classic story in the history of American technology. If you have ever wondered why people refer to “Yankee ingenuity,” this is what they are talking about. Hartford in the mid-1800s was one of the birthplaces of American mass production, making it a perfect case study for our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. Around 1850, Hartford native Samuel Colt perfected the precision manufacturing process that enabled the mass production of thousands of his revolvers with interchangeable parts. Over the next several decades, a variety of industries adopted and adapted these techniques and Hartford became the center of production for a wide array of products—including firearms by Colt, Richard Gatling and John Browning; Weed sewing machines; Royal and Underwood typewriters; Columbia bicycles; and even Pope automobiles. In the mid and late 1800s, the United States overtakes Great Britain as the world’s foremost economic superpower, largely on the strength of its prowess in inventing and manufacturing new technologies. Hartford is at the center of that revolution.

Coming out of Hartford at this time is a whole class of general purpose machine tools, like the turret lathes, drill presses, and milling machines. These were essentially machines that ground and shaped metal blanks into precise shapes that became the components of finished products—things like revolver barrels, sewing machines needles, and bicycle gears. These milling machines were general purpose technologies. Essentially, these were machines to make other machines. I think of it as similar to today’s microchips—a basic memory chip can go into any number of products, from laptop computers to digital cameras to the cable box. Once the basic techniques of forging and milling pieces of metal were understood, you could make just about anything, and they did in Hartford.

In addition to the manufacturing industries, there was so much more going on in Hartford at the same time. Most people, if they know much about Hartford, probably know it as “the insurance capital of the world.” So in addition to all of these manufacturing firms, at the exact same time, you have the emergence of all these major insurance firms, like Aetna, Travelers, and “The Hartford”—firms that still exist today.

Hartford also had this amazing literary scene in the mid-1800s. The city was home to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ignited the abolitionist movement in the decade before the Civil War. Her next door neighbor was none other than Mark Twain, who wrote many of his classics in Hartford—including The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince & the Pauper (1882), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In fact, the protagonist of Connecticut Yankee is based on the superintendent of the Colt armory.

Hartford reached its peak in the decades before and after the Civil War. It begins to wane in the first decade of the 20th century, when some of the original inventors and entrepreneurs begin to retire and sell their businesses. In 1901, Colt’s widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, sells the firm to a conglomerate; Pratt & Whitney also sells out in that same year. Many of these parent firms are based outside of Hartford, and they begin to relocate certain operations. Meanwhile, Albert Pope’s bicycle and auto-making operations face labor unrest and a banking crisis—he gets over-extended and declares bankruptcy in 1907 and the firm gets broken up into pieces. At the same time, firms looking to expand can’t do so within the city limits of Hartford, so they start to move to the suburbs of West Hartford and Manchester, and to cheaper labor markets in the Southern states and outside the U.S. By the 1950s, Hartford—like many industrial cities—begins to lose its commercial tax base, and starts to experience white flight some urban decay. However, because Hartford is the state capital and maintained the insurance industry, it has remained an important and vibrant city. Even today, we still have Colt-brand firearms, Columbia-brand bicycles, and Pratt & Whitney’s precision gauging and measurement tools.

Read Part II to learn more about the inventors of Hartford.

It’s in the Details

We think a lot about sequins here—about their care and conservation—the history of their invention and evolution—and they ways their sparkle conveys the magic and glamor of performance.

From the Hollywood movies of Judy Garland to the honky-tonks of Patsy Cline, sequins have played an important role in audience enchantment. Their very glimmer is a kind of short-hand for magic—the magic of a fantasy world conjured upon a screen or the magic of a voice stirring powerful emotion. It was the marriage of sequins, intense light, and Technicolor, after all, that gave those slippers their ruby glow in The Wizard of Oz and conveyed their inner power. [1]

Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," 1938, designed by Gilbert Adrian, NMAH

“The iridescent glimmer of sequins are essential elements in the larger-than-life persona of many a performer. It’s as if the shimmer allows them to bring their own special lighting to the stage.”

               —Dwight Blocker Bowers,
 Entertainment Curator,
National Museum of American History

PBR shoes made from over 2,000 hole-punched aluminum circles; woven white plastic bags in background

Sequins—whimsically employed—are what first drew me to artist Timothy Westbrook’s Pabst Blue Ribbon shoes. They were posted on Facebook by Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel where Westbrook is Artist-in-Residence. Online, the shoes were gorgeous and charming—their blue bows and red ribbons lining up just right—but it was the sequins’ brilliance and texture that put them over the top. I have two-stepping friends who would die to dance in them.

My cousin Rebecca’s wedding brought me to the hotel soon after, and in a quiet moment I discovered Westbrook’s studio just off of the hotel’s ornate 19th-century lobby. An odd place for PBR shoes, you might think, but this is Milwaukee, home of the Pabst family of brewery pioneers. Pabst Blue Ribbon is about as iconic as it gets in this place of invention.

I spotted the shoes right away—twinkling amid mannequins, gowns, and sparkling fabric being woven on a giant loom. I moved closer. I had never seen sequins like these—like round pieces of confetti arranged as if scales on a mermaid’s tail. I couldn’t stop looking.

Timothy Westbrook in his Pfister Hotel Studio

“Please touch!” enthused a voice from behind a non-electric treadle sewing machine. The kind and welcoming artist himself. Even with permission, I was hesitant to touch, but I’m so glad I did. Those weren’t sequins at all! They were red, white, and blue aluminum circles hole-punched from PBR cans! I loved the shoes even more for their surprise—for the inventive way that they not only celebrated an iconic American product—they were the product, recycled back to life.

Each shoe, Westbrook explained, was covered in over 2,000 aluminium circles hole-punched from used PBR cans. Separated for color and pattern, the “sequins” were then meticulously glued to a pair of vintage shoes over the course of 32 hours. Next to the PBR shoes were the latest entries in what Westbook calls his, “Drinking Shoe” collection: “Strongbow shoes” made from the hard cider’s distinctive yellow and black cans.

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Detail of Strongbow shoe

Strongbow shoe in-process

Strongbow by Westbrook

Strongbow kit: cans, vintage shoe, hole punch, glue

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Making "sequins" from Strongbow aluminum cans

The “magic” of the PBR shoes, I told Westbrook, made me think on some level of that most celebrated pair of sequinned shoes in the Smithsonian’s collection. Funny I should say that: Westbrook recently created “Ruby Slippers” for a project commissioned by Misha Rabinovich.

Westbrook's glistening red "Ruby Slippers" made from another American icon—the Coca-Cola can; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com

The result is a spectacular pair of shoes that would make the Wicked Witch of the West take notice: a sparkling duo made of thousands of aluminum “sequins” from another American icon: Coca-Cola. The project was difficult on several levels—the heel, for example, is often wrong in reproductions—but Westbrook’s greatest challenge was creating something that evokes the public’s powerful memory of the shoes while providing a 21st-century twist.

"Ruby Slippers" by Timothy Westbrook

Model wearing Westbrook's "Ruby Slippers"; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com

“The closer I get to garbage the more interested people are, ” Westbrook said. ”When they don’t know what they’re looking at, when they have to look closer and differently to figure it out, they see the innovation—that it’s not garbage at all—it’s something beautiful and a piece of Americana.”

Turns out, there was more to see, including other pieces made from recycled materials such as audio cassette tapes, MRI film, scrap yarn and fabric, umbrellas, medical splints, electric wire, and those ubiquitous white plastic bags. Even retired sheets donated by the Pfister get a second life as gowns.

Since that meeting in Milwaukee, I’ve enjoyed an ongoing conversation with Westbrook about his work and commitment to using re-purposed material. So much of what he talked about resonated with conversations the Lemelson Center has had with the many creative and innovative people that come through our doors. In my next post, I will talk about the work Westbrook is doing to transform discarded audio tape into shimmering textiles that challenge one’s definition of luxury.


[1] Blocker Bowers, Dwight (Entertainment Curator, National Museum of American History). 2007. From the Smithsonian Channel’s America’s Treasures video.

 

 

 

Cool Inventions from Different Invention Cultures

Cultures of invention are as diverse as places of invention. One community of inventors’ attitudes toward failure, success, competition, and collaboration during the invention process may differ widely from other inventor communities. An interesting example of this contrast is the pioneering counterculture communities of hip-hop and skateboarding.

Skateboards were invented in California during the 1940s and 1950s by laid-back surfers interested in finding a way to do on land what they did for fun in the ocean. Skateboarding gained wider recognition and popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the construction of skate parks, improvement in skateboard materials and designs, and an explosion in the invention of tricks.

Hip-hop music was invented in the 1970s and 1980s by a disadvantaged community of African American and Caribbean (Jamaican, Puerto Rican, etc…) American urbanites in the Bronx. When the elements of hip-hop coalesced, gang territories became DJ territories and physical fights became break dancing fights, rapping contests, or DJ battles. The community reinvented the turntable as a musical instrument through physical alternations and new techniques of use. In the mid to late 1980s hip-hop expanded both artistically and geographically and around the 1990s became a part of mainstream America.

In both communities, then and today, individual inventors tend to work first in isolation; when they meet with others, the two communities, generally speaking, have different attitudes toward collaboration. Skate culture values humility. Egos are disliked. Many skaters resist skateboarding being labeled as a sport and don’t want skateboarding to be included in the Olympics for fear that skateboarding could become “jockified.” Experimentation in front of peers is encouraged and failure is accepted as an important part of the process. It typically takes a skater many days of attempting the same trick to succeed once. If a guy fails for two hours then does an amazing trick, the community embraces him. It is an open-source community where skaters enjoy sharing their tricks with others. Skateboarders create an environment supportive of failure, and the quantity of failure enforces skaters’ humility.

In hip-hop, ego and competitiveness is valued. As DJ Cash Money says “I’m a very competitive person [and] I wanted to be known as the world’s greatest DJ.” The records from which a DJ samples music is a closely guarded secret. Some early DJs replaced record labels with others and even spied on each other while they were out buying records. Young DJs often learned techniques through observation while “paying their dues” (carting around equipment for more prestigious artists). When two DJs showed up at a venue it was often not for experimentation but competition—a DJ would throw down a challenge to another to meet at a specific time and place for a battle. Some had a crew to give them an aura of power and intimidation (and, because DJ’s had so much large and heavy equipment to transport to and from gigs, crews helped transport it and ensure that it wasn’t stolen). DJs set up their equipment on opposing sides of the venue and the one with the most cheers and dancers won. At first DJs won primarily by having the louder sound system, but later they won more through showing off better techniques. The winner continued to rock the party and the loser went home to tweak their system and techniques then fight another battle. As Cash Money put it, “If someone beats you, you just go back to the drawing board and try to do better the next time.” Ego in the form of a crew, a superhuman DJ name (like Immortal), MC boasts, clothing, and sound volume could all help win battles and respect, or street cred. DJ Immortal describes competing competition the following way: “I saw them going back and forth, fighting each other with the turntables. The crowd was totally eggin’ ‘em on. It was this awesome instrument that I was seeing, the turntable. Plus that competitive element, too, where you could just destroy someone. It was like a real sport.”

From "Yes Yes Y'all."

Competitions and contests exist within the skateboarding community as well. Skaters seek recognition by, say, being featured in magazine articles, garnering lots of positive comments on their YouTube videos, or winning skating contests. But once you have fame, it can often be prohibitive to further invention. As a skater is defending their title or reputation, they may be more likely to keep doing their signature tricks and take fewer risks on new moves, as it becomes difficult to retain an environment where they feel comfortable failing. So while competing well can be a motivating factor it is only one path to the success of receiving credit for inventing a new trick.

Similarly with hip-hop, a skate contest can provide the street cred or name recognition many seek. But hip-hop artists are typically motivated to achieve more than just name recognition, such as a recording deal, commercial endorsements, more money, wider fame, their own brand labels, etc. Cash Money’s DJ name in itself illustrates this focus. Skaters tend to invent for the purpose of inventing and impressing their own community, and many are satisfied with receiving recognition for their inventions in the form of a contest title, magazine photo, or YouTube video.

That these two inventive communities value different means for achieving success emphasizes to me that place matters. A place or environment shapes the values of the inventors that live there, and their values shape their invention process and definition of success. Any place can become a place of invention because people in any community can develop amazing inventions with a mix of creativity, collaboration and competition, risk-taking and problem-solving along the way.

Source for Cash Money and DJ Immortal quotes: Katz, M. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Lowell through the Lens

This is a guest post by Jessica K. Wilson, Executive Director of Lowell Telecommunications Corporation—the  American Textile History Museum‘s  community partner in the Places of Invention (POI) Affiliates Project

 

We were thrilled when our friends at the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) approached us to be a part of the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention Affiliates Project. It seemed a natural fit. For nearly twenty years, the Lowell Telecommunications Corporation—or LTC, as our members lovingly call us—has been a place where the Lowell community has visually translated their stories and ideas into multimedia shared worldwide.

We’re what in the 1970s was called a public access television station and in the late 1990s and early 2000s a community media center. Now with the advent of a movement towards all things local, we like to think of ourselves as a farm where we grow local video by doing what we do best and most often: train people from throughout the city to produce digital film and video using professional media equipment.

Locally-made video introduction to LTC featuring members of the Lowell community

LTC’s goal is to help our citizens communicate with the largest possible audience—to say something about the space they live in, people they encounter, and things they value in our community. Once this was only possible over Lowell’s cable TV broadcast signal; now with tools like YouTube and iMovie, online broadcast channels are seemingly infinite.

We’re delighted that the Smithsonian’s POI Affiliates Project provides an opportunity to take Lowell’s unique story to an even broader audience. Working with ATHM, we’re developing videos that will become part of the interactive map in the POI exhibition and website. One of the things we’re particularly interested is the way historic technology continues to shape contemporary innovation in Lowell. Textile mills and other spaces are used and re-used for new purposes. The city’s physical advantages and constraints inspire—and require—new solutions. Our POI Affiliate team plans to develop video topics around these themes.  

LTC is moving full-steam ahead. Firm believers that anyone can be a video producer with the right education, we have taken the same approach to becoming local historians. Our staff has donned our “historian” hats and are enlisting members of the Lowell community in our documentary efforts. Conversations with ATHM’s David Unger, Director of Interpretation, have made us think more deeply about the 19th-century textile industry and the way it affects city growth today—economically, demographically, and architecturally. We look forward to working with the Museum and sharing our findings with you.

LTC’s recent tour of Lowell’s City Hall building shows how it has been used and re-used to meet the changing needs of city residents.

 

What do you want to make today?

I held a soldering iron for the first time in my life a few weeks ago. It was exciting and frustrating at the same time. Trying to melt a bead of solder to connect two parts proved more difficult than I expected it to be. But after several attempts, I finally managed to complete my little project (you can see it in action in the video). Those weren’t the most beautiful joins, but they worked. And the sense of accomplishment I felt as I proudly wore my little blinking robot pin the rest of the day far exceeded the actual amount of work I had done. That simple act of making something, of using a new tool, even if I weren’t particularly good at it, is something I will remember for a long time.

So why was I soldering in the first place? I was at a “Mini Maker Faire” at the conclusion of a workshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Makeshop. A group of us from museums around the country were there to learn about Makeshop and the maker movement, and to think about ways to incorporate that philosophy into our own work. And why was a historian involved in this?

I had a few reasons for wanting to attend. First, I’m a historian of technology and it’s important to me to understand how the stuff I study and write about works. And I like tools, so getting to try out some new ones is just plain fun. But I’m also the historian on the planning team for the new Spark!Lab that will open after the renovation of the Museum’s West Exhibition Wing, so it’s my job to think about ways to infuse hands-on activities with history. And while I don’t yet have a lot of answers about how we will do that, I did get some ideas from the workshop and my personal experience with that soldering iron.

Throughout the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, art and technology meet in whimsical ways, as this sculpture of "King Steel and Queen Iron" by Devon Smith (2001) illustrates. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

One of the workshop participants pointed out that kids are good at making the connection between the “do” and the “happen.” She suggested that, rather than just give kids tools, we could first ask what they want the tool to do, and then ask what they might invent that would do that. It seems to me that making a connection to history as the next question—how do you think people used to do this?—might work. We have actually been trying something like this in our Spark!Lab prototyping sessions. Kids and their families can pick up and examine an ice skate from about 100 years ago, look at sketches and patents for other types of ice skates invented over time, and then use the materials we provide to either invent the ice skate of the future or create something new that could move them across the ice. Spark!Lab emphasizes that invention is a process; incorporating stories from the past reveals that it is a continuum as well.

Another Makeshop project---"squishy" circuits made of boots (feet?) of clay carry electricity from the batteries to the LED lamps. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Perhaps the one thing that surprised me most about Makeshop, though, was how much it reinforces the research we are doing for our Places of Invention exhibition. In places as different as Hollywood in the 1930s and the Bronx in the ’70s, we have identified some common threads that tend to run through creative places. Rather than a recipe, we see these characteristics as ingredients of a strategy that helps people do their best work. Many of these elements are reflected in the 21st Century Skills framework as well.

For example, flexibility is important to fostering critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Not only do minds need to be open to new connections and opportunities, but spaces need to be adaptable to new directions in work. Makeshop is a great example of this. Although the space is divided into three distinct areas—one for electrical projects, a woodshop, and a sewing area—everything in those spaces can be reconfigured quickly and easily. Tables and cabinets are modular and on wheels. Pegboards are metal so they can be used in the standard fashion and also with magnetic items. In short, the space is designed to suit the work, whatever it may be.

Makeshop's movable, reconfigurable tables, pegboards, and cabinets create the ultimate flexible environment. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

That flexibility also makes the space conducive to collaboration, another characteristic of places of invention. Whether it’s one-on-one work with a Makeshop facilitator (like the student volunteer who, with enormous patience, helped me wield my soldering iron) or for family groups to work together on a project, the opportunity to work with someone else and learn from each other makes for a very fulfilling experience.

But don’t take my word for it. Find a buddy, some tools, and come up with a project. Create your own place of invention. As they say at Makeshop, “What do you want to make today?”

From the Collections: Technicolor Sets the Scene

Within a short time she was walking briskly toward the Emerald City, her silver shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow roadbed. The sun shone bright and the birds sang sweet and Dorothy . . .

In the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, author L. Frank Baum gave the Wicked Witch of the East a pair of powerful silver shoes that became Dorothy’s when her Kansas farmhouse dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on the witch. Whether or not Baum meant those silver shoes skipping down a golden road as a commentary on the late-19th-century debate over basing American currency on a gold or silver standard, his vision of silver shoes remained intact in early versions of the screenplay for the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Yet the shoes were certainly not silver in the final film. While we may never be certain why Baum chose silver, we do know exactly why Dorothy’s shoes became a pair of sequin-covered, iridescent ruby slippers in the movie. The answer: Technicolor.

Photo: Only the Oz portion of the movie was filmed in Technicolor; the Kansas scenes were shot in black-and-white and toned sepia.

Inventors and MIT graduates Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, and the technically adept W. Burton Wescottfounded Technicolor in 1915  (the “Tech” in Technicolor was a nod to Kalmus and Comstock’s alma mater). In 1938, Kalmus spoke about the beginnings of the company:

“The earliest Technicolor laboratory was built within a railway car. This car was completely equipped with a photochemical laboratory, darkrooms, fireproof safes, power plant, offices, and all the machinery and apparatus necessary for continuously carrying on the following processes on a small commercial scale; sensitizing, testing, perforating, developing, washing, fixing and drying positive; printing, developing, washing, and conditioning air; filtering and cooling wash water; examining and splicing film; and making control measurements and tests.”

Photo: One of Daniel Comstock’s former students at MIT, Joseph Arthur Ball, was primarily responsible for developing the three-strip motion picture camera that was used until the 1950s when color negative motion picture film was introduced. The camera was large, heavy, and loud. It was attached to a dolly to help move it around the set, and an outer box was called a “blimp” surrounded the camera mechanism to muffle the noise.

The Technicolor team continued to tweak the invention through several iterations before it reached its full glory in the 1930s. Technicolor Process Number Four, or 3-strip Technicolor, used in The Wizard of Oz, wasn’t a type of film, though. Instead, the action was filmed with a modified motion-picture camera that contained a prism and colored filters that, in turn, separated the scene onto three different strips of black-and-white negative film. Each strip correlated to the filtered colors and was used to create an intermediary strip called a matrix. In a method similar to lithography, the matrices were then used to print the final movies that were distributed to theaters. Making a Technicolor feature film was such a complex undertaking that movie studios were required to hire specially trained Technicolor staff to oversee production. These included color consultants, under the direction of Natalie Kalmus, Herbert’s ex-wife.

A former art student, Natalie became the ultimate mediator between the lab and the silver screen, unwavering in her commitment to make Technicolor shine. She made decisions about makeup, costumes, sets, and lighting, and even went behind the camera as a cinematographer a few times. She controlled (some say with an iron fist) the aura of Technicolor, describing her role as “playing ringmaster to the rainbow.”


Photo: Natalie Kalmus wrote, “We must constantly practice color restraint.” Did that philosophy influence Adrian’s choice of muted colors for the Scarecrow’s costume?

Natalie Kalmus was the Technicolor consultant on The Wizard of Oz set. We don’t know if she played a part in transforming Baum’s silver shoes into ruby slippers or if costume designer Gilbert Adrian and screenwriter Noel Langley came to the decision independent of her influence. But with one seemingly simple change, an American icon was born.


Photo: Several pairs of ruby slippers were made for the film. The Museum’s pair have felt soles, suggesting that they were worn by Judy Garland in dance scenes.

The Museum’s collections are rich in artifacts from The Wizard of Oz and the Technicolor era, and the ruby slippers are among our most visited treasures. The image of Dorothy clicking those sequined heels together three times, repeating “There’s no place like home,” is part of our shared memory. Would the ruby slippers have attained such star status if they had remained silver?

Sources:

  1. Google Books digitized version of L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1899), p. 33, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=qbV65PabTEYC. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  2. Richard Haines, Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1993).
  3. Herbert T. Kalmus, “Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland,” reprinted at http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/kalmus.htm. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  4. Natalie M. Kalmus, “Color Consciousness,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 25, no. 2 (August 1935): 139–47.
  5. “Natalie M. Kalmus Dies at 87; A Co-Developer of Technicolor,” New York Times, November 18, 1965, p. 47.

Revolutionary Invention: Hip-Hop and the PC

What do hip-hop music and personal computers have in common? They were both children of the turbulent 1970s, born to innovative people who, building on inventive skills and technologies, nurtured them through creativity, collaboration, risk taking, problem solving, flexibility, and hard work. As with all inventions, their parents created them using some existing technologies. Hip-hop music evolved from adaptations of sound recording and playback equipment, while personal computers were built on integrated circuits, or “microchips,” co-invented in 1959 by Robert Noyce of Silicon Valley.

Imagine the social, cultural, economic, and political upheavals in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Picture the urban decay happening in inner-city areas of many major metropolises. Then picture the suburban communities that had burgeoned after World War II, representing the American Dream of where and how to live. Within these vastly different contexts, the Bronx, New York, and Silicon Valley, California, became places of invention—for hip-hop music and personal computers, respectively.

From "Yes Yes Y'all." Photo by John Fekner, copyright Charlie Ahearn

By the 1970s, the Bronx served as a national symbol of urban blight. Cut off from the rest of New York City by the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the primarily black and Puerto Rican residents were left to their own devices to deal with crime, drugs, dilapidated housing, few public services, and fewer job opportunities. Meanwhile, across the country, the relatively new, sunny suburbs between San Jose and San Francisco (which became known collectively as “Silicon Valley”) attracted primarily middle- and upper-class white, well-educated residents, many of whom were employed by the rapidly growing semiconductor industry there. Unlike the Bronx, Silicon Valley already had a reputation as a place of invention.

G Man and his crew DJ-ing at a park Bronx, New York, 1984 © Henry Chalfant

Sometimes lack of material resources encourages inventiveness. People in poor communities in America and around the world put their creativity to work on a daily basis using whatever materials are available. In the Bronx, residents searching for innovative, non-violent ways to express themselves took advantage of the limited resources around them to create the technology and artistry of a new kind of music. As Grand Wizzard Theodore (regarded as the inventor of the hip-hop scratch) said, “Hip-hop came from nothing. The people that created hip-hop had nothing.  And what they did was they created something from nothing.”[i] People like DJ Grandmaster Flash had electronics training and used those skills to adapt record players, speakers, and other stereo system elements to invent the new musical sounds, tools, and techniques that became hip-hop.

In resource-rich Silicon Valley, people like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had computer experience, access to lots of new technologies, and networks with people in the industry. Among other activities, they were involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, which was founded by electronics hobbyists in a Menlo Park garage in 1975 and later met in a Stanford University auditorium. The two Steves lived and worked in a prime location to invent and promote their personal computer, the Apple I. Although not the first personal computer (that credit goes to John Blankenbaker’s 1971 Kenbak-1), the Apple is arguably the most famous.

What inventors and innovators in Silicon Valley shared with Bronx inventors and innovators was what might be termed “counter cultural” perspectives. Both groups were interested in democratizing their respective inventions—although hip-hop DJs and computer tinkerers probably wouldn’t have expressed it quite this way at the time! In the Bronx, the pioneers of hip-hop wanted to create their own music, uniquely representative of their community, away from the disco clubs in Manhattan and without mainstream limits.

Silicon Valley East. Flickr photo by Andrei Z.

In Silicon Valley, they wanted to break away from the corporate and government control of huge mainframe computers and create small, personal computers for themselves, their friends, and eventually the larger public. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak remembered in the 2006 documentary, In Search of the Valley, “There was lots of talk at Homebrew [computer club] about social revolution, we were going to have our own tools at home and own our own computers and not be slaves to what our employers wanted us to use.”

Another important element shared by inventors and innovators in the Bronx, Silicon Valley, and indeed all of the communities featured in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibition project was the support of like-minded individuals who collaborated as well as competed to further creativity. In the end, it turns out you’re not necessarily limited by limited resources. What you need is imagination, adaptability, perseverance, encouragement from your community, and eventually a wider, welcoming market. Hip-hop music and personal computers ended up revolutionizing not only American but also global society and culture.

Many thanks to Eric Hintz and Laurel Fritzsch for their expertise on these two Places of Invention!


[i] Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 253.