Monday, January 30, 2012

Innovation and the Power of Place

Kevin Stolarick.
According to Kevin Stolarick, the next great innovations coming out of our space sector are not going to come from traditional science and engineering communities like Huntsville (the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center), or the Florida Space Coast or even the St. Hubert region surrounding Canadian Space Agency (CSA) headquarters.

Real innovation will instead require large, diversified cities with many highly educated and creative human beings (or "knowledge workers") operating and socializing across multiple, distributed networks to bring new ideas, global context and unique perspectives to local communities traditionally trapped in rigid thought patterns.

This will be true, even for the space science and system engineering communities, which have contributed so much to our early space activities.

Huntsville, Alabama
Stolarick, a professor and the research director for the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, made the comments during his presentation at the January 2012 public meeting of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA) in downtown Toronto.

The presentation focused on "the role of sub-national factors such as location, place and city-regions in global economic prosperity and how these factors relate to the Canadian space systems industry." 

As an example of his thesis, Stolarick gives Huntsville, the fourth largest city in Alabama with around 400,000 people. Its a place where systems engineers working in the space industry have traditionally gravitated to because of the local suburban strip malls, golf courses and generally wide open spaces which are supposed to appeal to traditional middle class American values.

Birmingham, Alabama.
Contrast this with Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama and the core of the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area. With an estimated population of approximately one-quarter of Alabama's or 1.2 million people, the city has a built up core providing plenty of places for connections and a thriving, nontraditional multicultural and artistic community.

Birmingham is certainly not a suburb, although the population inside Birmingham's city limits has fallen over the past few decades, due in large part to "white flight" from the city proper to surrounding suburbs. Perhaps that's the reason why there is very little "cross pollination" or travel between Birmingham and predominantly white, middle class Huntsville, since the cities are less than two hours apart.

Stolarick thinks that cross pollination should be occurring because it would benefit both cities. He even provides a Canadian example of what could potentially happen if Huntsville systems engineers spent more time talking to artists and others in larger multicultural centers like Birmingham.

Montreal, PQ.
According to Stolarick, engineers working out of Bombardier Aerospace in Montreal experimented with a closed-cell foam formulation for use in aircraft until test results revealed the foam to be unsuitable for the intended application. So the engineers donated the foam to local artists to use in their art projects. For their part, the local Montreal artists promised to invite the Bombardier engineers to any show featuring the donated foam.

And here's where it gets interesting.

Essentially, the local artists ended up using the Bombardier foam in so many unique and innovative ways, that the Bombardier engineers were both amazed and suitably chastised. But as soon as they realized what was possible, they also started coming up with new ideas for products and processes. The foam, although originally considered useless, was soon integrated back into various Bombardier products as a result of the efforts, creativity and innovation of the Montreal artistic community and the follow-up visits by the Bombardier engineers.

According to Stolarick, larger cities are "more creative" than smaller cities because of the possibilities of developing new connections among people and groups with different ideas. If Montreal is better than Huntsville, then New York and Beijing should be even better. This isn't the first time that the link between creativity, cities and cross culture pollination has been noted (check out the video below on "Fashioning Apollo" for a second example) and it certainly isn't going to be the last.

Nicholas de Monchaux: Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo from Maker Faire on

Our politicians should take note and maybe even consider asking CSA office employees in the John H. Chapman Space Centre the number of times each month they're able to make the thirty minute drive into downtown Montreal.

The next CSCA meeting is Thursday, March 8th, 2012 at the downtown Toronto law offices of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP.. Information on the upcoming March 28th, 2012 CSCA National Conference, focused on "our Critical Canadian Space Infrastructure" is now available online here.

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