Cynics and Creators

I’ve spent too much time on Twitter and it has driven a black stake through my generative heart.

                                 Death by Twitter

                                 Death by Twitter

Since November of last year, I’ve been suffering a severe spell of cynicism that has me doubting my own creative and innovative efforts. My hope in starting IdeaMonger a year ago was to spotlight and encourage the hidden, underserved innovators and creators who work outside the mainstream.  Innovation and creativity are democratic, American-dream traits.  If wielded courageously and honorably, the myth goes, these tools help anyone anywhere to change lives and shape their own fortune.  Now, a divisive political and ethical pall smothers my spirits:  the itchy woolen blanket of cynicism is spread wide and heavy.  Deception and treachery seem to be the tools of choice to gain power and fortune in this country.

See what I did in that last paragraph?  Talked myself into a hole? This blog post is my attempt to snap out of it…and, maybe snap you out, too? In the face of the current cultural and political climate in our country, it is more important than ever to advance creativity over cynicism; innovation over ideology.  

Antisthenes, the father of cynicism.  Hey, you would be cynical, too, if you had blank eyeballs.

Antisthenes, the father of cynicism.  Hey, you would be cynical, too, if you had blank eyeballs.

Creativity and innovation thrive on possibility and openness.  Cynicism emanates from fear of vulnerability and a demand for certainty in the midst of flux.  Fighting cynicism breeds more cynicism.  But it disappears by itself when met with compassion, curiosity and continuous forward motion.

Talking Myself Out Of It

Here are the top five mental mantras I’m using to hold cynicism at bay and keep positive productivity on the rails.

1.  Stop ranting.  Venting usually breeds more venting. Quit intoxicating myself with social media gossip and outrage regarding people and situations over which I have little or no control...mentioning no one in specific...but, for instance, maybe people whose names rhyme with Schmonald Schmump.

2.  Assess anger. Anger and cynicism can produce clever ideas…but not necessarily usefully creative and innovative ones.  Don’t embrace anger and don’t push it away, either.  Learn from it.

“A cynic can chill and dishearten with a single word.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

3.  Choose curiosity.  Actively pursue what’s new and next with a beginner’s mind that allows for possibility and potential.

4. Nevertheless, persist.  Get back up off your butt and, if necessary, write a self-indulgent blog post to publicly commit yourself to a more useful frame of mind.  Consistent positive action, even in the midst of cynical miasma, can lift the fog and produce powerful new ideas leading to more positive action and around again.

5. Stay open.  Be neither pessimist nor optimist but stay awake and receptive to what is happening without judgment.  Who knows what direction things will turn but we all know that they will indeed turn sooner or later.

Cynicism presumes predetermined failure.

Optimism latches on to the future at the expense of now.

Openness is now while ignoring neither past nor future.

"The greater part of truth is always hidden, in regions out of reach of cynicism." J. R. R. Tolkien

I am open to story ideas that help uphold IdeaMonger’s mission of championing creativity and innovation from under-served, under-recognized sources.  Please share them and join me in replacing cynicism with creativity and curiosity.

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Scale This.

Words Handcrafted By Andrew Dietz


The Land of Scalable, Innovative Craftsmanship

The Land of Scalable, Innovative Craftsmanship

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.  In a hidden valley in the Himalayas, or in Kansas maybe, felt-covered, hand-stitched unicorns prance across candy corn meadows and milk chocolate lakes.  Somewhere, too, there may be a rare piece of space where craftsmanship, innovation and scalability intersect.  Bring me there, please.

Craftsmanship is precious: pour ten thousand hours into mastering a unique aesthetic skill so you can passionately shape sensory delicacies for a lucky few to savor.  Don’t you value the look, feel, taste, performance of a carefully hand crafted service, product or experience?   Innovative craftsmanship is better still.  That means the hand-styled creation of a brand new way of solving a problem, accomplishing a task or doing work that is as aesthetically pleasing as it is highly functional.  But, you can’t build scalable innovation on artistry and craftsmanship.  Can you?  

Antonio Stradivari | Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Source: Oberndorfer, Anne Faulkner (1921). "What we hear in music." Camden, NJ

Antonio Stradivari | Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Source: Oberndorfer, Anne Faulkner (1921). "What we hear in music." Camden, NJ

Scalability means growing big, fast, without excessive (or, at least, with predictably proportional or flattening) effort and expense.  Minting tons of money with lightening speed while you sleep: That sounds precious, too.  But, can craftsmanship and quality survive the fast growth journey?  

"Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos" Highland Park, Michigan | Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

"Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos" Highland Park, Michigan | Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Scalability Sucks

What if scalability is overrated?  Tom Peters is a world famous, New York Times Best-selling business provocateur and he writes about business excellence and innovation.  Peters doesn’t think scalability is overrated.  He thinks it sucks.

Scalability sucks. What about: “Our goal is unscalable coolness!” [Or “Wow-ness,” “Amazingness,” “OMG-ness” whatever ...]
— Tom Peters, Twitter, June 2016

Value or Wowlue?

Jim Jacoby thinks craftsmanship and scalability aren’t polar opposites but choices to be made across a spectrum of possibilities.  Jacoby is a practical philosopher and a digital poet of sorts – having founded the marketing agency, Manifest Digital, in 2001 on the principles of great user-centered web design.  Seven years later, Jacoby and his partners had grown Manifest into the ranks of Inc. Magazine’s fastest growing companies.  Manifest revenues grew by 100% in 2008.  In January 2009, a major private equity firm committed $9 million in investment capital to help Manifest realize its bigger potential and to ultimately maximize the company’s value.  

A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.
— Steve Blank, Author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany

Definitions of value can differ greatly between innovators and investors.  Private equity funders tend to value scalable growth and value portfolio companies run by ravenous carnivores rather than philosophers and poets.  That combination leads to maximum economic value.  For idea creators, the “value” equation may include variables like aesthetics, societal impact, "Wow-ness," "Amazingness," or "OMG-ness."   Big Idea guys aren’t always the best fit with ROI-driven financiers.  Such may have been the case with Jacoby and the backers of Manifest Digital.  Or, it could be that Jacoby – as happens with many entrepreneurs after they hit a decade with their company – became bored of the same-old grind.  Whatever the case, a few years after bringing in private equity funding, Jacoby’s attention had shifted away from the firm he founded and towards a burgeoning obsession:  world-class craftsmanship.

In 2012, Jacoby joined forces with former home products manufacturing entrepreneur, Scott Miller, and launched a mission-driven for-profit organization called American Design and Master-Craft Initiative (ADMCi) to champion master-craftsmanship by studying the work of virtuoso makers and applying it to other markets like software and services.  ADMCi made good on that promise by enlisting experts in online user experience, interface design and digital content to deliver boot camps and classes on “digital craftsmanship” to creatives and coders in downtown Chicago and online.  

At the same time, ADMCi invested in the maestro motorcycle designer J.T. Nesbitt and his vision to build the ultimate motorcycle that would not only stand on its own as a sculptural gem but also be engineered to break land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Jacoby challenged Nesbitt:  “What would you design if you could design anything?”  And, Jacoby gave the motorcycle maestro an ample budget and free creative rein:  a no-constraints design platform.  

The result: Bienville Legacy Motorcycles which has initially produced three hand-built, supercharged badass muscle bikes adorned with custom carbon fiber, natural wood, top-grade leather and gleaming chrome.   As one online motorcycle enthusiast said, “Love it or hate it (I love it) you cannot deny the craftsmanship or the wow factor.”  Those bikes are Wow!  Amazing! OMG!

Bienville Legacy Motorcycle | Image Courtesy of ADMCi

Bienville Legacy Motorcycle | Image Courtesy of ADMCi

Four years since launching these craftsmanship initiatives, Jacoby and his partners have traveled the globe to show off their bespoke motorcycles valued at $350,000 apiece.  They’ve garnered multiple patents for elements of the Bienville Legacy design that are being marketed to the auto industry by Pratt & Miller Engineering.  They’re bringing their lessons-learned to corporate America and consolidating those lessons into book form.  

At the center of ADMCi’s findings about master craftsmanship is the idea that scalability, engineering and optimization aren’t necessarily at odds with intuition, design and innovation. Instead, these variables can be mapped – and, therefore, balanced - on the continuums of art and science, heart and mind.  

Craftsmanship Spectrum from The Art and Science of IxD - A Path to Craftsmanship | Courtesy of Jim Jacoby

Craftsmanship Spectrum from The Art and Science of IxD - A Path to Craftsmanship | Courtesy of Jim Jacoby

Here’s how Jacoby describes it:

Can craftsmanship and scalability exist? Yes. The challenge comes when you're not clear on whether you are building for craft or building for scale.  Pure art is created for the purpose of the artist first.  Pure engineering, at the other end of the spectrum, is created to meet a technical specification of some kind. The center of that art and engineering spectrum represents the balance of craftsmanship:  it’s the point that meets an exacting purpose and incorporates a visceral sense of its creator. Craftsmanship is an ethos and an outcome that defines excellence at a specific point on the continuum of art and science. It’s ultimately the sum of seemingly insignificant moments of courage and choice.

Consider a scenario where a craftsman makes a masterpiece in a chair or table.  The piece itself is valued for function, beauty, as well as for the fact that it was handmade:  reflecting the value of the time it took to produce and the experience accumulated and applied by the craftsman.   That object, whatever it may be, can serve as a prototype or form for something that might separately be scaled. That's an entirely different activity, but still an important skill which we might call design for manufacturing.   The requirements for manufacture are separate from those the craftsman kept in balance when designing the prototype, because they serve a different 'master.' Design for manufacturing needs to be efficient, cost-effective, and fill a need in the market. Those drivers may cause a master-crafted piece to be compromised in some way in order to be worth reproducing.  The more compromises for efficiency, cost, etc. are made, the further away from the craftsman's ideal the piece might evolve.  That's okay, because the design goal is entirely different. 

The creation of the three Bienville Legacy bikes reveals efficiencies available for production. In the case of our prototype Legacy bikes, there are fewer parts than are normally included in a motorcycle with this level of complexity and performance.  It is infinitely more adjustable than any other bike produced. These learnings can be adopted for the benefits of efficient manufacturing, but were not originally intended to serve that master.  We liken it to a moonshot.  Under any normal circumstance, going to the moon is unreasonable and doesn't scale yet.  But, the byproducts - ballpoint pens, Velcro and Tang - are all great, scalable products that were unintended offshoots of necessary components of the design to get to the moon. 

Ideally, we would have a culture of master-craftsmanship that serves as the breeding ground for great new designs that could be mass-produced. What would it look like to take the Bienville Legacy patents and use them to make a $1000 moped that could be spread across India?  That is the ideal.  

Instead, we have an environment where mass-production puts craftsmen out of business. They can't compete. In better circumstances, the mass manufacturers and the craftsmen would help one another.  Wouldn't it be interesting if manufacturing companies took a fraction of their earnings to support craft communities that might, in turn, contribute their intellectual capital to support the innovation and advancement of the larger organization?

The Bienville Legacy represents extraordinary craftsmanship and its development was an innovative act. Still, it is a far cry from scalable craftsmanship.  Rather than trying to scale one finely crafted product, what if you built a business that, at scale, offered a vast inventory and variety of crafted goods?  That’s what Etsy did.


What we have here is a post-industrial nostalgia for the pre-industrial. In a culture with a surfeit of branding and cheap mass-produced goods, we romanticize the handmade because we yearn for quality, not quantity.
— Justin McGuirk, The Guardian, August 1, 2011

Is This Craftsmanship?

The online craft retailer Etsy – founded in 2005 – was launched as an e-commerce platform for promoting indie craft makers empowering them to turn their hobbies into enterprises.  You can’t buy a handcrafted, Bienville Legacy motorcycle on the e-commerce craft products site, Etsy.  But you can buy small-batch, classic motorcycle goggles.  You can also buy nose rings, lip rings, belly rings, toe rings, and nipple rings.  You can pick up a pound of hand spun super chunky “smoosh” yarn.  You can also add to your collection of miniature sleeping woodland fairies, teeny tiny garden gnomes or needle-felted alpacas.  Um…Wow? Amazing? OMG?

Should the word “craftsmanship” apply with equal force to fuzzy, stuffed Camelids and sculpted, titanium-laced motorcycles?  Does the term fit both a Stradivarius violin and an Etsy non-piercing labia clip? There are degrees of craftsmanship, perhaps, like there are degrees of absurdity.  Or maybe these comparisons reveal the difference between the hobbyist and artisan approaches:  crafting versus craftsmanship or craftsmanship versus Master Craftsmanship?  

For that matter, there are degrees of “entrepreneurial craftsmanship” when it comes to creating and running a business, too.  In the first six years of Etsy’s existence, founder Rob Kalin and his team insisted that sellers on Etsy promote only handmade products.  Kalin & Co. valued their entrepreneurial freedom to create with few constraints.  But, their constraints on Etsy sellers placed significant limitations on those makers' flexibility.  Etsy’s requirement that its merchants sell only handcrafted items meant that sellers would be put in a production pickle if they were successful.  To keep up with rising demand, a successful Etsy merchant would have to turn to outside labor or manufacturing and would, therefore, be disqualified from being an Etsy participant.  Craft and scale were at odds.

In April 2011, INC. Magazine ran an article headlined, “Can Rob Kalin Scale Etsy?  Kalin was quoted saying, "I speak to people in the business world and the technology world, but I don't admire them.  I admire the makers of the world." He dismissed the idea of maximizing shareholder value as a ridiculous excuse that business users too often employ to avoid doing things.  Kalin emphasized the importance of “a sense of wonder, a sense of poetry, and a sense of foolishness” as drivers of Etsy’s success.  Like Jim Jacoby at Manifest Digital, Kalin launched a non-profit during his time at Etsy, providing a select group of Etsy sellers with free office space and training on how to turn a craft hobby into a business.  These are the values of a dyed-in-the-hand-spun-super-chunky-wool craftsman.

In July 2011, INC. Magazine ran an article headlined, “Rob Kalin Out As Etsy CEO.”  In 2013, Etsy began accepting sellers promoting manufactured goods. The following four years under a new CEO tipped the scales towards scaling Etsy’s top line revenue.  The business generated $2.4 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2015 though it remained unprofitable.  In April 2015, CNN Money reported, “Etsy now worth over $3 billion. Stock jumps 88% after IPO.” Wonder, poetry and foolishness be damned!  

Meanwhile, Etsy wrapped its arms around another kind of craftsmanship: the craft of making itself.  Etsy’s Code as Craft Blog announces:  “At Etsy, our mission is to enable people to make a living making things. The engineers who make Etsy make our living making something we love: software. We think of our code as craft — hence the name of the blog. Here we’ll write about our craft and our collective experience building and running Etsy, the world’s most vibrant handmade marketplace.”

This brings us back to Mr. Jacoby as his quest has returned him to his digital roots.  Through ADMCi, Jacoby is applying lessons from the Bienville Legacy experience to the realm of digital business.  “The ADMCi Studio for Digital Craftsmanship is a hub for all agencies interested in elevating their game through a core focus on the impact their work has on the world. We audit and certify their work, we support the development of craftsmanship-anchored cultures, and we route opportunities based on appropriate fit for each agency in the network,” Jacoby said.  “The obligations of digital design are to make a better human experience – offline as well as online.  Our craft is our user-centered design process. The roots of craftsmanship are woven throughout our work,” Jacoby added.

Jacoby also remains committed to his American Design and Master-Craft Initiative that is now led by co-founder Scott Miller.  ADMCi seems to have shifted the question from “how do we scale innovative craftsmanship” to “why should we?”  Jacoby points to the value residing in those three Bienville Legacy motorcycles.  The value he sees is in the patents created and the lessons learned.  Whether or not master craftsmanship is scalable, the effort can yield valuable inputs for product variations that ultimately move toward mass-production.  It is the by-product of what the craftsman creates that will lead to other advances and ventures…more scalable ones.  

“The key is to separate the drive for profit from the act of designing,” Jacoby said.  “Master craftsman should be free to do pure art.”  Jacoby’s ADMCi represents a new kind of patronage system that is more akin to what the Medici family created to support artists like Michelangelo.  

Lorenzo de Medici | Portrait by Girolamo Macchietti, 16th century | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lorenzo de Medici | Portrait by Girolamo Macchietti, 16th century | Source: Wikimedia Commons

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.
— Steve Jobs

Elusive But, Perhaps, Not Impossible

Just because something is elusive does not mean it is impossible.  We have seen instances of products and services living at the scalable, innovative craftsmanship intersection. They still live, waiting for creators with chutzpah and manic focus to produce their progeny.  Somewhere in a far-off hidden valley, a rider roars by on her Harley-Davidson, past the ghost of Steve Jobs pounding ideas out on his MacBook. Nearby, a unicorn surfs across the sea under a brilliant rainbow.


Yes, More Funny Ideas

Words by Andrew Dietz

AHA HA HA jokes and novelties, 99 West Bow, Edinburgh, EH1 2JP  | Source: WikiCommons

AHA HA HA jokes and novelties, 99 West Bow, Edinburgh, EH1 2JP  | Source: WikiCommons

Martha Stewart - tough-as-nails, ex-con TV homemaker - is hardly a jokester.  

But Martha played along in good, if stiff, humor when Barry Kudrowitz appeared on her television show.  She may have even cracked a smile (not clear as she may have simply been wincing) when Kudrowitz’s Catsup Crapper robot skated up to a pile of Martha’s French fries and butt-blasted a glob of Ketchup onto the plate.  

Barry Kudrowitz is an inventor.  Kudrowitz is also a product designer, an app entrepreneur, an illustrator, a sculptor, an author, a rap artist and a rock musician.  He is also Professor of Product Design at the University of Minnesota having earned his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Mechanical Engineering department studying creativity, humor and idea generation. And, of course, he can also make a rolling bottle of Heinz 57 turn on a dime and take a dump.  Silliness, Kudrowitz knows, is next to ingeniousness.

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny!'" Isaac Asimov said.  

Groucho Marx put it more plainly, "Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light."

Humor – especially good-hearted funniness – is a creative act.  Laughter provides momentary enlightenment through which ideas flow.  Humor works with whatever circumstances arise. Humor says “yes” and flows with the current – even when the stream is Shit Creek. Humorlessness says “No!” and pushes against the relentless river. Relaxed playfulness and laughter breed comfort and open-mindedness…and vice versa.  These are the right conditions for innovation.  

OPEN => FUNNY => CREATIVE => INNOVATIVE

Barry Kudrowitz’s MIT dissertation was titled, “HaHa and Aha!  Creativity, Idea Generation, Improvisational Humor, and Product Design.”  In it he explores how the use of humor and improvisational comedy can augment product design idea generation.  “We have found that the ability to quickly generate many ideas is strongly correlated (r2=.82) with being able to come up with a single, promising, creative idea,” he wrote.   “Furthermore, improvisational comedians were more proficient at new product idea generation than professional product designers, and methods for training comedians can be effectively adapted to product design idea generation.”  One reason, he argued, is that funny folks – especially improvisational comedians – have well-honed capacity for making non-obvious connections between seemingly unrelated things.

“There is a common rule of improvisation called “yes and...” which essentially sums up the two main rules of brainstorming: defer judgment and build off each other’s ideas,” Kudrowitz says. “Improvisational theatre is a social group activity like brainstorming and the success depends on the participants feeling comfortable sharing ideas and building on the ideas.”  With more emphasis on collaboration than ever before, it would seem that improvisational skill is an essential business competency for innovation and, frankly, basic social interaction.

A Brief Rant

For select business environments, “no” is safer than “yes” and “funny” actually means “frightening.”  Some companies are so skittish about litigation (potentially instigated by, say, some worker insulted by another colleague’s humor) that their General Counsel and HR teams perform radical humor bypass surgery on the whole place.   In others, there is so much self-absorbed pretension rooted in the culture that joking carries too big a threat of criticism by peers and overlords to be worth the risk.  For instance, at certain elite high-testosterone firms, if you make a self-deprecating joke you may be branded as insecure or weak:  Career suicide wrapped up in a punch line.  

Of course, don’t look to these organizations to produce much that’s new and transformative. Finding fault and saying no (except to their own grand insights) is their stock in trade.  That’s not to say that humorless people can’t create and innovate. It happens. I just don’t want to be around them when they do it…or any other time for that matter.  


For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
 
he goes forward in honor and self-assurance.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
undermines him all his life. 

- Constantine P. Cavafy, Che fece...il gran rifiuto


Funny Science

Dr. Peter McGraw is a funny scientist.  In his role as marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado he is a renowned expert in the science of humor.  He leads the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) which studies the nature of “funny” and he has summarized his findings in a 2014 book he co-authored with journalist Joel Warner called, The Humor Code:  A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny.  

What does McGraw think, I wondered, about the imposition of “extreme caution” and “political correctness” and “litigiousness” on humor in the workplace?   He says, “Positive humor is an outcome of a happy culture.  But, not everyone is highly skilled at it.  There are coworkers whose humor is simply mean and there are others whose humor is earnest but clumsy. You need to set parameters and provide workplace education around the use of humor.  You can teach professionals the difference between humor that is acceptable and unintentional comedy attempts that may be hurtful.  And, you can educate workers on how to deal with potential negative outcomes and the right way to apologize after inadvertent damage is done.”  

The degree to which humor permeates a company’s culture is linked to its market positioning.  “If your brand – like some consulting firms - is 'we’re corporate assassins', humor is not going to fit,” McGraw notes.  “Humor works within brands and cultures that are open to playfulness and warmth both inside the organization and in how they portray themselves externally.”

Regarding the role of humor in innovation, McGraw says that incorporating humor and creativity exercises benefits innovation for a couple of reasons.  First, for a particular set of innovation problems – humor might be good way to uncover the problems where innovative solutions are most needed.   “One type of humor is benign violation – poking fun at the way things have always been done,” McGraw says.  “There needs to be something wrong for something to be funny.  The act of making jokes about things implicitly finds what’s wrong with those things.  This approach often unearths problems that we wouldn’t otherwise recognize.”

Second, humor helps generate more ideas.  “Humor is a positive emotion that creates engagement.   When people are leaning in and having fun that leads to persistence.  Persistence helps drive more ideas.  One predictor of goodness of a chosen solution is the number of solutions you proposed in the first place,” according to McGraw.

“Everyone wants to talk about innovation but most are afraid of it.  Fear blocks creativity,” says Deb DiSandro. DiSandro is a humorist, author, syndicated columnist and owner of Slightly Off – On Purpose: a consultancy where DiSandro uses humor to help professionals push beyond their comfort zones to achieve more success with less stress.  When she first began writing her newspaper column, DiSandro found her own fear of imperfection standing in the way.  “I would go into this uncreative place out of fear of wanting to get everything just right and to be perfectly, hilariously funny,” she recalls.  “I grew up hearing ‘practice makes perfect’ but, really, what does ‘perfect’ look like?  Nobody knows.  We are taught that mediocrity is bad but sometimes striving for the ideal output shoots down the creative process.”   

DiSandro decided to let go of perfectionism. “What if I gave myself permission to get a ‘C’ and write just an average column?  I followed that path and, as a result, I was braver and took more risks and allowed more of my creative ideas to flow.  All of a sudden, I was writing what I considered to be ‘C’ columns but no one else could tell the difference,” she says.  

You don't need to get all As to succeed.  Maybe that’s why “succeed” has two Cs in it?  

“Humor helps people escape the perfection trap. If you want to get ideas going, start by getting people to laugh.  You can’t laugh and be stuck at the same time.  Humor gives people permission to be imperfect and fail.” People who can laugh at their own imperfection and failure tend to be less stressed and more resilient.  Relaxed and resilient people tend to inspire others to be more creative and productive.  “Companies that really honor humor are the ones that access greater innovation,” says DiSandro.  

Creme-filled Innovation

If your organization is culturally capable of laughing, please return with me to the improvisational pathway suggested by Barry Kudrowitz.  “The rules of improvisational theatre have much in common with the rules brainstorming. Just like brainstorming, many short form improvisational games are designed to promote prolific non-obvious association.  In both improvisational theatre and product design brainstorming, the members of the group share a common goal of putting out the best product,” wrote Kudrowitz in his 2010 dissertation.  Since then, he’s put this to the test in a way that illustrates how improvisational comedy can purposefully and practically improve innovative output.  

Kudrowitz runs an annual public improvisational sketching event called 'Sketch Off' at the University of Minnesota. He gathers teams of industry professionals and product design students and challenges them to quick-draw new product ideas in real-time before a raucous crowd based on the audience’s inputs and shout outs.  Silliness emerges and so do some hilariously interesting product ideas.  In past Sketch Offs, absurd assignments included developing costumes for a comb and lighter and drawing wearable products for Spongebob Squarepants.

“It helps to be silly with concepts, not necessarily with people,” Kudrowitz says.  When you feel that you are in a friendly, warm, comfortable situation, you will say things more directly.  Humor and silliness are linked to higher levels of dopamine – the brain’s pleasure and reward neurotransmitter. “When you’re laughing, you’ve got lots of dopamine released in the brain and higher dopamine leads to better association making,” he says.  And it is those fast and wild connections that can produce more and better ideas. 

As I write this sentence, cartoon commercial characters dance across my TV screen singing the praises of the wondrous Oreo cookie.  Meanwhile, I have on my computer screen the wondrous Barry Kudrowitz’s website, WONDERBARRY.com.  Kudrowitz launched his site in 2013, the same year the cookie brand launched its “Wonderfilled” Oreo brand campaign.  I don’t know which came first: the Oreo wonder cookie or the WONDERBARRY egg.  One thing is clear, though: Kudrowitz is an Oreo fan.  Those crème-filled treats prompted him to build a state-of-the-art Oreo crème separating device.

The Second City Is First

The Second City has taken improv-as-product-idea-accelerator a step beyond Kudrowitz’s Sketch Off approach through its Brandstage service.  

First, if you aren’t aware of Second City, bless your heart.  Here’s some background.  The Second City pioneered improvisational comedy theater in 1959 when it opened its doors on North Wells Street in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. Today the comedy troupe and theater have locations in Chicago, Toronto and Hollywood.  It has become known as a star-maker, pumping out comic legends like John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Steven Colbert, Steve Carrell, Martin Short, Eugene Levy and that’s just a small dent in the long list.  

As The Second City’s popularity grew, businesses began paying for special performances at corporate meetings, conferences and company soirees.  So, alongside its ongoing entertainment enterprise, the comedy troupe launched a sub-brand called Second City Communications to fill the rising corporate audience demand.  In the rough journey from the 2000s through the Great Recession, corporate entertainment gave way to corporate training and culture building and Second City Communications was renamed Second City Works (in 2015). Now, the professional services arm of Second City applies improv methodology to specific, pragmatic business interventions.  

“Second City’s business programs used to be all about the comedy,” says Kelly Leonard, Creative Adviser to The Second City and co-author of the 2015 book Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration--Lessons from The Second City.  “Now we’re as much about the application of our improvisation methods to solve business challenges like boosting product idea generation for major consumer goods companies,” he adds.

Bringing Improv Comedy To Business Challenges | Source:  Second City Works

Bringing Improv Comedy To Business Challenges | Source:  Second City Works

Under the leadership of Second City Works’ President and Managing Partner, Steve Johnston, the organization has promoted several fresh offerings. The firm’s Brandstage offering most directly links improvisational comedy to product innovation.  Johnston says, “Brandstage brings consumers, creative and product management teams, researchers, and Second City improvisers together to develop product and brand ideas in real time through improvisation and facilitated audience input and interaction.”  

Brandstage is innovation-by-ensemble fueled by humor and guided by improvisation methodology.  It works like this:  A consumer brand literally puts its product and messaging ideas onstage in the Second City theater setting.  Second City’s trained professional improvisers interact with an audience comprised of the brand’s consumers to capture the audience’s interests, thoughts and reactions to the marketing team’s brand and product concepts.  Then, the Second City performers weave marketer and consumer inputs into a series of improvisation games, scenes and songs that bring the collective ideas to life; prototyping ideas quickly in front of the audience and getting immediate feedback.  A professional moderator along with the brand team gleans what seems to be working – or not - with the audience.  The moderator leads a discussion across the room to identify unexplored insights and spark honest feedback.  Using the new input, they may do it all over again.  The brand/client comes away from the Brandstage workshop with a roadmap of observations, opportunities and action steps. 

Second City Works believes (and their clients seem to validate) that the Brandstage process – integrating improv, comedy and audience involvement – leads to a higher volume of more creative ideas that have consumer perspectives baked-in from the beginning.  “Most comedy is about getting to truth – it is a more comfortable way to talk about the elephant in the room without shooting it. Comedy removes the artificial walls that hold people back,” says Kelly Leonard.  This is Professor McGraw’s ‘Benign Violation’ theory in action.  Humor-inspired frankness can reveal product opportunities that may otherwise be missed. 

Comedy and improv are a powerful combination for inciting uncommon levels of idea productivity – especially those springing from unexpected places and people.  “You get to comedy through improv.  Improvisational comedy is people working together to make something out of nothing, using a set of rules that guide the process for unlocking creativity.  Improv puts creativity into a broader set of hands within a company – well beyond those in an organization who are hailed as the cherished few creative people.” Kelly Leonard adds.  


Coda

Summer Camp at Whole World Improv Theatre, Atlanta, GA || Jessie is 2nd from the left.

Summer Camp at Whole World Improv Theatre, Atlanta, GA || Jessie is 2nd from the left.

It is summer and that means hauling (with deep love, of course) my 14-year-old daughter, Jessie, to a series of camps that always seem to start and end at the most inconvenient times and places across Atlanta’s congested cityscape.  This week, Jessie’s camp is at Whole World Improv Theatre – one of Atlanta’s many comedic improv groups.  It is a week long program that dips her deep into ensemble exercises, improvisational games and scenes.   The final day includes a live show for the campers’ families.  I sit in the audience chewing my nails.  I am nervous.  She is not.  What she is, instead, is very funny and spontaneous and quick.  And, so – mostly - are her peers onstage. 

Humor and improv are learnable skills.  They go to the heart of mental agility and resilience. These are essential tools for any business that must innovate to live.  Sure it is great that teens are learning improv earlier than ever.  But it isn’t too late to pump more comedy into the culture for us grown-ups, either.  Add some funny to your innovation efforts.  Say yes to it.  No joke.  


Fixin' To Innovate 2.0

Experiments In Progress 

Even if the South’s blossoming innovation centers yield a bumper crop of entrepreneurs, is the region still simply playing a weak game of copycat? Or could the South’s innovation efforts and the unique burdens of its history and benefits of its cultural heritage wind up giving it a distinct regional advantage? 


Story by Andrew Dietz | Photographs by Bill Boling


Buckminster Fuller and Geodesic Dome | Museum of Design Atlanta | March 2016

Buckminster Fuller and Geodesic Dome | Museum of Design Atlanta | March 2016

The Black Mountain Genius Cluster

Eric Weiner is a best-selling author and former NPR and New York Times correspondent. In his newest book, “The Geography of Genius:  A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley,” Weiner claims to have cracked the code on how the people and places immediately around us affect our innovations. 

“Cultural geography matters,” Weiner says. “Throughout history, geniuses haven’t appeared randomly but rather in genius clusters.”  He stretches the idea of innovation beyond technology and science and points to ancient Athens, Greece during the Golden Age as a genius cluster whose innovations were mainly in culture and politics. “Genius is contagious,” Weiner said. Back when Athens packed no more than 150,000 inhabitants, it produced an epidemic of innovators from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Hippocrates. 

"Genius Is Contagious." - Eric Weiner

The Southern Renaissance in poetry, fiction and drama that began in the 1920s is the closest the South has come to its own Golden Age of Innovation. Tired of being cast off as morons outside of the mainstream, a crop of Southern writers went on the offensive and began to more vigorously exercise their creative chops. This period produced Southern literary innovators like William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Wolfe and Zora Neale Hurston. The 20’s and 30’s were also a time of radically shifting music trends instigated by Southern artists:  from the urban blues of W.C. Handy to the improvisational instrumentals and vocals of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. As commercial radio broadcasting took off in the 1920s, the “Devil’s Music” of the shunned South passed over airwaves and penetrated the ears and possessed the souls of the rest of America. 

Faulkner Honored At Southern Food and Beverage Museum For Innovative Consumption Habits.

Faulkner Honored At Southern Food and Beverage Museum For Innovative Consumption Habits.

“Genius is often committed by society’s outsiders who aren’t so outside that they can’t affect culture. The South of the 1920s and 1930s still had its own culture and still seemed geographically isolated from the rest of the country,” Weiner noted. “Creativity gets channeled into the spaces available to it. Literature and music were the containers the South had available.”

One Southern space that channeled a torrent of creativity was the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly complex in the bucolic backwater of Black Mountain, NC. Black Mountain College – just outside of Asheville - was the brainchild of an unlikely proponent of radical innovation:  an heir to Southern propriety and tradition.

John Andrew Rice was born to a highbred South Carolina family at Tanglewood Plantation just outside of Florence. He attended Tulane, then Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar after which he committed to a career in education. His pursuit of success in traditional academia was short-lived. Rice was dismissed from a series of University roles for broadcasting razor-toothed critiques of his employers. In 1933, after being fired from his faculty role at Rollins College for publicly lambasting the school’s leadership, he set out on his own. Rice and several colleagues founded Black Mountain College that same year as a progressive liberal arts school that honored direct experience, experimentation and the practice of art as central components of the curriculum. 

From 1933 to 1957, Black Mountain College was a beehive of global genius in the heart of the South. The program attracted and cultivated brilliant arts innovators like Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, Robert Motherwell, Walter Gropius, Harry Callahan, Ben Shahn, Franz Kline, Alan Ginsberg and Buckminster Fuller. Albert Einstein and poet William Carlos Williams served on the Black Mountain College Board of Advisors. Students were urged and expected to experiment – to test, try, fail, and to explore the unconventional. Faculty set the example. It was at Black Mountain that Bucky Fuller constructed his first geodesic dome. It was at Black Mountain that John Cage construed what would later be considered the first “Happening” – an early form of performance art. 

Buckminster Fuller and Students at Black Mountain College, Summer 1949 | Courtesy of Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Asheville, NC

Buckminster Fuller and Students at Black Mountain College, Summer 1949 | Courtesy of Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Asheville, NC

Black Mountain College closed its doors in 1957 but it remains revered:  usually referred to as mythical or fabled and as a monumental experiment, radically innovative and enormously influential. Did this happen in spite of its rural Appalachian locale or because of it? Published recollections of Black Mountain participants are filled with evidence of how the school’s Southern setting shaped the experience. They tell of participating in chores on the Black Mountain farm and helping with maintenance, working in the print and woodworking shops building furnishings and other equipment to operate the college. They speak of regular excursions to towns, farms, schools, and even coal mines. They recall hikes through the Smoky Mountains along the Appalachian Trail. They recount watching the workers of Burlington Mills and learning from the craftspeople of Biltmore Industries in nearby Asheville. 

One former Black Mountain student wrote, “Trips were highlights of my "Southern experience," sociological trips in particular. Nothing one had studied in earlier years or read of in a classroom situation could compare with the sights, sounds, smells and atmosphere of a Georgia landscape, seeing the living conditions of black sharecroppers and learning firsthand what the government was doing about them.”  Intentionally or not, Black Mountain was both shaped by and embodied the expressive, experimental and eccentric Southern spirit. 

Savannah College of Art & Design | Photo by Bill Boling

Savannah College of Art & Design | Photo by Bill Boling

The Creativity Business

Nearly thirty years after Black Mountain shuttered its doors, another Southern art school has disrupted the creative landscape: Savannah College of Art & Design.

SCAD has grown with the thrust of a solid rocket booster – from 71 students in its opening year of 1978 to over 10,000 today with campuses in Atlanta, Savannah, Lacoste (France) and Hong Kong. SCAD is an educational juggernaut that stands in sharp contrast to the fine arts university establishment in its embrace of business. The fashionable Parsons School of Design in New York states that its mission is to have students “learn to apply the transformative capacity of design responsibly, creatively, and purposefully.”  The School of the Art Institute of Chicago says its mission is “to provide excellence in the delivery of a global education in visual, design, media, and related arts, with attendant studies in the history and theory of those disciplines set within a broad-based, humanistic curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences.” The mission of the California Institute of the Arts is to teach “artists to develop the skills and personal drive to reach their creative potential, question received ideas and expand forms of knowledge and experience in the world.”  SCAD’s mission statement is more prosaic:  “Savannah College of Art and Design exists to prepare talented students for professional careers.”  It calls itself “The University for Creative Careers.” 

"Design Is The Future Of Innovation." - John Paul Rowan

SCAD equips students with more than art chops. It teaches them creative problem solving methods essential for business innovation. Best selling author, Daniel Pink, chronicled the rising importance of design thinking skills in his 2006 book, “A Whole New Mind:  Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The World.” The 2008 Great Recession validated Pink’s proposal that flexible, non-linear problem solving skills were essential to business survival. In a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Pink said, “The abilities that now matter most are those characteristic of the right hemisphere (of the brain):  artistry, empathy inventiveness and big picture thinking. Those skills have now become first among equals in a whole range of businesses and professions.”  

“Design is the future of innovation,” according to John Paul Rowan, SCAD’s Vice President for Strategy and Innovation and son of the school’s co-founder and leader, Paula Wallace. Innovation is also the future of design. SCAD’s ongoing reinvention is informed by constant interaction with top industry innovators in corporate America. SCAD’s Collaborative Learning Center (CLC) is a primary facilitator of that interaction according to Rowan. 

John Paul Rowan | SCAD | Photo by Bill Boling

John Paul Rowan | SCAD | Photo by Bill Boling

SCAD's CLC is student-powered, cross-discipline creative consultancy tackling real and significant challenges posed by client companies like Coke, Microsoft, HP, and Fisher Price. The SCAD website describes it this way, “During these for-credit CLC projects, students have the opportunity to experience first-hand working within a professional environment, including market research, branding, product development, client relationships and presentations, contracts and deadlines.”  

J. P. Rowan believes collaboration born of ongoing relationships is the secret sauce of Southern innovation.

“The South is historically very relationship based and that’s the basis of strong collaboration. There’s huge innovative power in collaboration. So, on any of our CLC engagements, we may have students from 10 to 12 different disciplines participating and bringing their unique perspectives to the project. Being in the South may well set us up to be better at collaborative innovation than others,” Rowan said.

SCAD has used its relationships and collaborations with industry to inform its own innovation efforts. It was collaborative interaction initiated by Google that led SCAD to launch the country’s first UX design degree program. It was co-creation with mega-brands like Disney and The Coca-Cola Company that resulted in SCAD’s branded entertainment degree. And, it was brainstorming with service quality leaders like Chick-fil-A that influenced SCAD’s launch of a service design major.

Inside SCAD's CLC Building | Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Inside SCAD's CLC Building | Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Six years ago, Dr. Dwain Cox – a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics - became Director of Innovation & Design for Chick-fil-A Inc. and launched Hatch – one of the company’s two innovation centers. While the other CFA innovation center, The Kitchen, focuses on new product development, Hatch concentrates on innovation in restaurant design and customer service. In 2016, Chick-fil-A will build and open nearly one new restaurant each day and many of its 1900 existing locations are renovated and redesigned each year. Hatch provides a safe place to experiment with new and customized store layouts and continuously improve customers’ experience with the Chick-fil-A brand. 

Hatch operates in a non-descript office park on the industrial outskirts of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport near Chick-fil-A’s corporate campus. Inside the 80,000 square foot warehouse is open, reconfigurable space where Cox and his team of researchers, designers and staff collaborate with restaurant operators and customers to put restaurant design ideas through their paces. Various vignettes – full blown, mock restaurants made of foam board and white plastic – populate the building and allow the team to run simulations of the Chick-fil-A experience. In a nearby lab area, there’s a control room where Cox and colleagues can watch a live video feed of each faux facility where real restaurant workers prepare real food for real customers. The observers make notes and suggest changes to the set-up that, in minutes, is reconfigured and the test starts again. Just in case the multiple life-size mock-ups don’t do the trick, Cox has outfitted another Hatch space where customers strap on Oculus goggles and provide feedback based on a virtual reality stroll through different computer generated restaurant designs.

"Innovation Is The Only Thing You Can't Automate." - Dwain Cox

Dwain Cox now serves on the Board of SCAD and the restaurant chain relies on SCAD as a key source of ideas and talent. “Innovation is the only thing you can’t automate,” Dwain Cox said. “It is a people thing. Step one is keeping the capable people in the Southeast. Good news is there’s never been a time that there have been more talented people staying here. Who would have thought that the premier art school in the world would be a Georgia based institution?”

It may seem like a discontinuity: that a global force in arts and innovation could arise and thrive in Savannah, Georgia. But, SCAD has been an integral partner in reviving the City’s once tarnished urban core. The college has renovated and revitalized more than half of the 80 buildings it occupies in downtown Savannah and adapted them for university use. In 2014, Travel + Leisure magazine’s 2014 World’s Best Awards ranked Savannah as the No. 3 city in the U.S. and Canada. It is proof that architecture and design can morph a city from a has-been into a what’s-next and that the South has significant urban innovation prowess.


Millenials On The Move At Ponce City Market | Atlanta, GA | Photo By Bill Boling

Millenials On The Move At Ponce City Market | Atlanta, GA | Photo By Bill Boling

Innovation On Track

Like Birmingham’s Innovation Depot, Atlanta’s Ponce City Market exists within the revamped shell of a former Sears, Roebuck & Co. building. It is a mixed used facility, with friendly retailers and funky food shops swarming with hip, knowledge-working Millenials. While not solely dedicated to fostering innovation, the gargantuan facility houses the headquarters of Southern technology innovators like MailChimp – one of Atlanta’s marketing-software success stories. A Prince among adaptive reuse developments, Ponce City Market might not have achieved the same instant success had it not been located along Atlanta’s Beltline – the King of Atlanta’s urban renewal and a civic innovation in its own right.

Ryan Gravel | Atlanta, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Ryan Gravel | Atlanta, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Ryan Gravel invented the Atlanta Beltline. In his 1999 Georgia Tech master’s thesis, Gravel hatched the idea of converting 22-miles of unused rail corridor surrounding Atlanta into multi-use greenway with trails linking disconnected in-town neighborhoods. Seventeen years since submitting his paper, Gravel – now a professional urban planner - has seen his innovation become a $4 billion public-private project that has reaped tremendous benefit for Atlanta. It breathed new life into the formerly decrepit Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, for instance. 

Gravel’s urban design consultancy, Sixpitch, is headquartered in the Industrious co-working space at Ponce City Market in Old Fourth Ward. His new book is Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming infrastructure for a new generation of cities

Atlanta Beltline Between Revamped Ford and Sears Buildings | Photo by Bill Boling

Atlanta Beltline Between Revamped Ford and Sears Buildings | Photo by Bill Boling

Which Side Of The Innovation Tracks Are You On?

“The original beltline of historic railroad tracks was a classic barrier – as in, which side of the tracks are you on?” Gravel said. His soft, measured speech is calming and certain. “Now it’s a meeting ground between communities,” he added. “Social interaction is where you get creativity. Changing the physical form of the city can stimulate interaction and innovation.”

Gravel is a social innovator:  an entrepreneur who solves societal issues with tactics originating outside the traditional non-profit world. As the South has raised more than its fair share of societal challenges, we also have grown a bumper crop of social innovators. That’s the opinion of Rohit Malhotra – a friend of Gravel and the founder of Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation – an incubator for entrepreneurs devoted to social change. Malhotra grew up in Atlanta, earned a Master in Public Policy degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and worked as a Government Innovations Fellow for The White House- Executive Office of the President before launching the Center for Civic Innovation in 2014. “We’ve identified thousands, in Atlanta alone, who have made a conscious choice to build businesses that fix broken societal systems,” Malhotra said. 

Malhotra sees the South’s relationship culture as an advantage for social innovators. That’s why he does his part to foster more interactions to spark more ventures. He hosts regular “collective problem solving” events that bring together entrepreneurs who are addressing the same social issues. Time invested upfront in building business relationships in the South opens innovators to a flow of resources that may come more generously here than elsewhere. “The culture plays a huge role,” Malhotra believes. “Anyone who thinks they can start a business here without drinking sweet tea with their partners and investors first is kidding themselves. When people ask me how we scaled the Center for Civic Innovation so fast, I tell them we sat down and did the Southern hospitality thing first.” 


Fixin' To Innovate 2.0 was the second in a three-part series on the Southeast Region's surge of innovation.  Please read Fixin' To Innovate 1.0 if you haven't already. In Part Three of the series - Fixin' To Innovate 3.0 - we look at how the region's hand's-on, do-it-yourself traditions impact innovation.

Fixin' To Innovate 3.0

Making The Future.

Does Southern hospitality provide an innovation advantage? To the extent that hospitality is equated with food, gracious service and careful craftsmanship, it just may.  In fact, maybe hands-on, experiential “making” – whether that means making supper or making shoes - is the true Southern Innovation secret sauce?


Story by Andrew Dietz | Photographs by Bill Boling


Lebanon Plantation | Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Lebanon Plantation | Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Ag-Innovation Is Thriving In The South.

We have James Oglethorpe, in part, to thank for that. When Oglethorpe settled Savannah in 1732, his ambition was to create a colony based on farming and agricultural innovation. Within two years of landing, Oglethorpe and his backers established the Trustees’ Garden – a ten-acre plot dedicated to botanical and agricultural experiments. During its first 15 years, the Trustee Gardeners tried to figure out what would grow in the Savannah dirt. They experimented with grapes, oranges, capers, olives, ginseng, sassafras, figs, pomegranates, plums, flax, and rice. 

Two hundred years later, agricultural experimentation remained a part of Savannah’s early 20th Century plantation culture. Henry Ford made sure of it. Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, the auto-tycoon stitched together large swaths of plantation land on the Ogeechee River just outside of Savannah in the area known as Richmond Hill. Should the U.S. be pulled into another major war, Ford feared, the ensuing shortage of tire rubber might stifle his auto empire and hinder the war effort. Ford’s assemblage of coastal Georgia land provided a place to grow his own rubber plants. Even with the help of Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, however, Ford ultimately failed to develop new sources of rubber. Regardless, Ford’s plantation research lab carried on other efforts to transform agricultural products into automotive materials. And, Ford himself urged his fellow plantation owners to do the same. He gave his neighbor, Mills B. Lane of Lebanon Plantation, tung-oil seeds so that Lane might grow a supply of raw materials for engine lubricant. Lane didn’t comply. He was busy producing Satsuma oranges and pecans and building empires of his own.

Today, the master of the Lebanon Plantation manor is Howard J. Morrison Jr., Lane’s grandson. Morrison is a big man. When he sits back on the sofa his long legs stretch out before him like Live Oak roots wrapped in khaki pants. Morrison is in his early 70s but a much younger version, with hunting jacket slung over a shoulder and shotgun in the crook of an arm, watches from a portrait above the arched fireplace mantle. We are discussing innovation while lounging in his red brick residence adjacent to the Plantation Main House. Mills B. Lane Sr. bought the 256-year-old Lebanon Plantation 100 years ago. The estate now serves as the base of operations for a new agricultural experiment:  Verdant Kitchen

Howard J. Morrison, Jr. | Lebanon Plantation, Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Howard J. Morrison, Jr. | Lebanon Plantation, Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Morrison calls Verdant Kitchen, “a gourmet and wellness company focused on the ginger and turmeric family of spices.” Wellness refers to the healthful properties of Verdant’s certified organic spices. Ginger is often called a “Superfood” and credited as an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory and an aphrodisiac. Ginger is the new Kale. Ginger is the fruit of the Lebanon Plantation soil. Browsing the company’s online store, I am reminded of Bubba in Forrest Gump. “Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan-fried, deep-fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich,” Bubba said. Bubba forgot ginger shrimp but Verdant didn’t. If it can be made from ginger, Verdant Kitchen probably makes it. Dey’s bare ginger, chocolate coated ginger, crystallized ginger, ginger infused honey, ginger sauce, ginger syrup, ground ginger, ginger snaps, turmeric dusted baby ginger and three flavors of ginger ale (the Artillery Hot Spiced Ginger Ale will blow up your taste buds). Oprah Winfrey included Verdant’s Ginger Syrup And Ginger Infused Honey Gift Set in her Favorite Things of 2015 list. In December 2015, the Savannah Morning News named Verdant Kitchen its “Entrepreneurial Business of the Year.”  Morrison, it seems, has unearthed innovative opportunity in his own fertile soil.

Innovators and entrepreneurs see opportunity in adversity.
— Howard J. Morrison Jr.

Howard Morrison explains how his family tree has produced a bounty of problem solvers. Out of the dirt-farming ditches of Reconstruction-era Valdosta, Morrison’s great granddaddy, Remer Lane, started one of the first post-Civil War Southern banks in 1874. Remer’s son, Mills B. Lane Sr., merged that bank with another in Savannah to form C&S Bank in 1906 and kept it growing through World War I and the Great Depression. Along the way, he served on the boards of major Southern companies (like the original makers of Dixie Crystal sugar) and acquired personal interests in others like the former textile giant, Bibb Manufacturing. Mills’ son, Mills B. Lane Jr., took leadership of C&S at age 34, in the tumult leading to World War II. Mills Jr. was an exuberant marketer and a civic champion who built C&S into a 20th Century banking powerhouse over the next three decades. Mills Jr.’s nephew, Howard Morrison, joined C&S in the mid-1960s. 

By the mid-1970s, following the rampant growth of Atlanta technology pioneers like Scientific Atlanta, Morrison shifted his business development efforts towards banking the budding tech community. Morrison has had an enormous influence on Georgia’s technology ecosystem ever since. He helped create C&S Bank’s High Technology Banking Group. He co-founded the predecessor organization to the Technology Association of Georgia. He got the C&S to fund local venture capital pioneers like Noro-Moseley Partners and the Atlanta Technology Development Fund. After retiring from banking in 1996, Morrison served as Chair of the Innovation and Technology Committee of the Georgia Department of Industry Trade & Tourism. He has been board chair of the Georgia Tech Research Corporation and is an inductee in the Georgia High Tech Hall of Fame. In his hometown of Savannah, Morrison helped launch what is now the Creative Coast Alliance and influenced the creation of a Georgia Tech Savannah campus. In 2008, Morrison co-founded a consultancy to develop biomass energy technologies. More recently, he’s been working with health care technology start-ups when he’s not selling ginger and turmeric.

Morrison carries himself with an easy self-confidence and attentive courtesy as he mixes with members of the local Farm Bureau under a drapery of Spanish Moss. The visitors are sampling Lebanon Plantation’s ginger harvest and studying Verdant Kitchen’s approach to farming. Pragmatism and experiential knowledge are as important as science and experimentation when it comes to agricultural innovation and Morrison gets as much as he gives at these interactions. His friendship with Pete Waller is an example. Morrison counts on Waller’s advice when it comes to Verdant Kitchens. Waller is a Chatham County Farm Bureau Board Member. He’s also the President of the Georgia Strawberry Growers Association and on the Coastal Georgia Resource and Development Council and a member of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and of the Georgia Cattlemen’s Association, and he makes time for the Water Policy Planning Committee and the State of Georgia Farm Service, too. 

Howard Morrison and Pete Waller | Lebanon Plantation, Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Howard Morrison and Pete Waller | Lebanon Plantation, Savannah, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Y’know…what ya did a hunnert years ago ya gotta improve on.
— Pete Waller

Morrison gently guides Waller over to say hello. “This is the man I was telling you about,” Morrison says. “He’s got wisdom based on experience. And, he’s a real good friend as long as he doesn’t have a gun – he sure knows how to shoot birds.”  Waller sniffs and a small smile cracks his stoic mouth. His head is covered with a white cap. Ottawa Farms, Bloomingdale, GA, it says. “Quality Produce Since 1878.” The place has been in the Waller family that long. Waller’s chin is covered with a curtain of wiry growth running down from his sideburns and along his jawline. The man is country as all get out. He’s country as turnip greens. He’s also smarter than a tree full of owls when it comes to growing things. Waller can grow anything but he’s mainly a berry and melon man. Ottawa Farms produces strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, watermelon, cantaloupes, pumpkins and pomegranates. “Right now, we tryin’ to put a breedin’ program together for the Southeast for strawberries ‘stead of using the ones outta Canada and California. Time we did it here,” Waller says. Waller is also an agricultural entertainment impresario – hosting rodeos, corn mazes, pig races and duck races at Ottawa Farms. He points out, “Y’know…what ya did a hunnert years ago ya gotta improve on.”  


Oil Can Innovation

Wisdom based on experience breeds do-it-yourself, dirt beneath the nails innovation that’s endemic to the South. Visceral down-home knowledge feeds the booming craft and maker movements in the region. 

The Makers Collective in Greenville, SC is the brainchild of Lib Ramos, Erin Godbey and Jen Moreau with a mission of helping to cultivate a thriving Maker community in the Southeast and to connect it to the modern craft movement that is brewing across the U.S. They host The Makers Summit, an annual two-day conference that helps creative entrepreneurs, independent artists and makers turn their handcrafted products into revenue. They also lead the Indie Craft Parade, an annual three-day conclave showcasing Southern makers.

“We really care about the emergence of Southern artists and we see our organization as part of the continuing Southern Renaissance that has been in the works for the past decade or so,” Moreau says. She believes that there is a “noticeable, deep camaraderie among artists” at Makers Collective events that avoids “destructive competitiveness between makers” and is, rather, characterized by “a genuine Southern hospitality that flows throughout.” She adds, “In our experience, entrepreneurs are willing to share their knowledge and experiences with each other, which results in accelerated innovation and business growth.”  In fact, many Makers Collective alumni have seen commercial success like Billiam Jeans, The Landmark Project, Emily Jeffords and Lovelane Designs.

Given her role fostering a creative Southern community, Jen Moreau ought to have a good idea of how the burdens and benefits of Southern history, arts and culture shape our unique approach to innovation. “As a general rule, I think Southerners are particularly good at passing creative skills from one generation to the next,” Jen says. “Also, I think some of the memory of the darker portions of our history have helped creative a new culture where creatives want to be inclusive and fair. And, since Greenville is located so close to the Appalachian mountains, there is a lot of history and creative culture that makes its way to us. The legacy of schools like Black Mountain College and Penland School of Crafts looms large throughout Western North Carolina and Upcountry South Carolina. The efforts of artists in our area have both kept alive and helped rebirth traditional forms of arts and craft.”

Southern craftsmen are creating all kinds of small batch, high quality products ranging from clothing and furniture to beer and bourbon. They’re innovating using old-school production values and eco-friendly approaches. They’re turning up in every Southern cranny and in every product category: from Alabama Chanin Skirts, Ledbury Shirts and Raleigh Denim to Terrapin Beer, American Spirit Whiskey, and Cathead Vodka; from Fern & Roby Turntables and New West Records to Baxendale Guitars remanufactured with mother-of-pearl inlays and mink-lined cases. Some are fueled by the rise in 3D printing. Robohand is an Atlanta-based company that 3D prints prosthetic hands while Feetz is a Chattanooga company that 3D prints custom shoes. Others are driven by a folksy, friendly Southern authenticity like Bohemian Guitars made from salvaged oil cans.

Bohemian Guitars’ founders, Adam and Shaun Lee, are Southern makers who got their inspiration from street musicians in South Africa that played homemade instruments ginned up from old cans and other found objects. The brothers were smitten with the unique sounds resonating from scrap metal guitars and decided they could make their own. Operating out of their parents’ basement, they first built ukuleles with lunch box bodies. Then they built a batch of oil can guitars and convinced themselves they had a business in the making. Bohemian was born. Now the company’s hand-made recycled metal and repurposed oil can guitars are played onstage by major artists like Hozier and Shakey Graves. 

Sterling Bacon – son of John Bacon of IP2Biz who is related to actor Kevin Bacon but not to urban designer Kevin Bacon – most recently served as Bohemian’s VP of Artist Relations & Corporate Partnerships. “The electric guitar was invented 85 years ago and has been nearly the same ever since. Bohemian has invented a whole new class of guitar. The tones you can get with our products are unlikely anything else,” Bacon says. “Our designs are definitely informed by great old Southern brands. Take a look at our Boho Moonshine guitar or our Boho Honey and you’ll see what I mean. Rock has a colorful history in the South. Our guitars lend themselves well to music rooted in the South. We love that we get to tap our musical heritage and put metal instruments in the hands of artists who are continuing the legacy.”

Something in Particular

You know the quote from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!  “Tell about the South. What's it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?”  Three young creative professionals set out on a road trip to find answers among artists and innovators across the South. What, they wondered, is that particular something that motivates regional artists to create work that is distinctively Southern. Melonie Tharpe, Cubby West, James Martin’s proposed documentary film, “Something in Particular,” aspired to capture the elusive intangibles that define the source of Southern creativity. 

“We are on a mission to bring Southern artists as a whole to the forefront of the creative landscape and develop a collective interest across the region and beyond,” the “Something in Particular” web site explains. The filmmakers believe the Second Southern Renaissance is on its way and they aimed to document it in real time. After raising nearly $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, in early 2012, Tharpe, West and Martin visited 17 cities and interviewed over 200 creators in just over a month. They interviewed luminaries like artist Radcliffe Bailey and musician Jimbo Mathis and they interviewed lesser knowns like the proprietors of the Idea Hatchery in Nashville and the Mojo Coworking space in Asheville. They got so far as to post a film trailer online and to mount a gallery exhibition featuring the art of ten Southern artists in 2013 before they ran out of money and momentum and the documentary was put on indefinite hold.

Still, the remnants of Something in Particular reveal distinctive attributes of Southern innovation.  Its sound bites speak of an expressive freedom emerging from scarcity in a “if you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose” kind of way in many parts of the South. Tension, too, is cited as an important innovative influence here:  the ever present dualities of good and bad, black and white, what’s apparent and what’s hidden behind closed doors. Tolerance and togetherness, even in the midst of a segregated history, provide a support system, a sense of story and a tolerance for the iconoclastic oddity inherent in many innovators. 


Failing Forward

The South’s vivid contradictions carry seeds of innovative advantage.

If turmoil is rich fertilizer for innovation, the region is ready to burst with buds. “There has to be an element of tension and disorder in order for a genius cluster to succeed; Comfort is the enemy of creativity,” Geography of Genius author, Eric Weiner, says. Six Southern states rank in the top ten for worst poverty rates in the U.S. Eleven Southern states (that is, nearly all) rank in the top twenty most impoverished places. A map of the worst health care systems in the U.S. published by The Atlantic shows the entire Southeast in stark negative contrast to the rest of the nation. There’s plenty of discomfort to go around in the South. Is that why inventions like anesthesia or advances in open-heart surgery happened here before they caught on elsewhere? 

Eric Weiner tells this story: “I talked to a venture capitalist not long ago and asked about who he funds. He said, when someone comes in for funding, he looks for the chip. The microchip? No, the chip on their shoulder. The South has chips to spare.”  Maybe so. That chip-on-the-shoulder is what led to the South’s greatest media success: Ted Turner and the invention of 24-hour news. Turner’s father was born to a Mississippi sharecropper and carried plenty of his own insecurity. He believed instilling insecurity in his own son would push him to greatness. It worked. According to biographer Hank Whittemore’s account of Ted Turner’s creation of CNN, Turner said, “All during my life I had this gnawing feeling that maybe I wasn’t going to be a success.”  His father once told an 18-year-old Ted Turner that his son’s choice of educational path “appalled” him to the point that he “almost puked” and that the boy was “ rapidly becoming a jackass.”  Edward Turner’s suicide when Turner was just 24 seemed to ignite a passionate hatred of failure in his son. “I just love it when people say I can’t do something,” Ted Turner has said. “There’s nothing that makes me feel better because all my life people have said I wasn’t going to make it.”  

Double Barrel Cannon | Athens, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Double Barrel Cannon | Athens, GA | Photo by Bill Boling

Failure hovers over the South like flies on roadkill. A constant reminder of The Lost Cause and how the South’s innovation deficiency contributed to this failure is publicly displayed in Athens, Georgia. The Double Barreled Cannon is a 154-year-old, 1300-pound, cast iron weapon built in 1862 but never saw battle. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Link two 6 lb. cannonballs by a chain, simultaneously blast them out of neighboring barrels and you could literally chop the enemy off at the knees. In testing, though, the balls flew from the cannon at slightly different times and the erratically spinning twins ploughed an acre of land, dismembered trees, demolished a log cabin and executed a cow. 

The badge of failure seems to carry greater weight in the South than elsewhere, mingled as it is here with feelings of personal disgrace. “In San Francisco, failure is a badge of honor that you wear on your sleeve. Whereas here if you fail than YOU are a failure,” says Tim Adkins one of the co-founders of FuckUp Nights Atlanta. If failure is shameful, nobody is going to talk about it and, therefore, no one learns from it. FuckUp Nights are celebrations of screwing up where entrepreneurs confess failures to their fellow founders. The point is to pivot off of failure and use its energy to propel you to the next success. While some Southerners may take failure more personally than others, resilience has long been a staple of the South. “Failure is just a resting place. It is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently,” Henry Ford once said. The South is more than ready to begin again. 

If the South has real innovation to offer, it doesn’t sprout from the mind of a Stanford PhD or the wallet of a Sand Hill financier. It isn’t conceived in an Ivy Hall in Cambridge and it is rarely the result of artificial incubation. The South’s innovation advantage is rooted in authentic scrappiness and the hardscrabble ability to reinvent itself. Its advantage is grounded as much in its universities committed to the arts as in those committed to scientific research. The South’s innovation edge unfolds from its people’s ability to form and protect close relationships and from community and familial loyalty. The South’s agricultural intimacy and the passing of skills from one generation to the next give it an innovation edge. And, the South’s innovation advantage is born from unfettered creativity, music and literature and an obsession with self-expression regardless of circumstances. It springs from the burdens and benefits of our history and the promise of what’s next.

Is Southern Innovation an oxymoron or a runaway train?  

A litany of innovative geniuses grace the South’s recent history: like Lonnie Johnson - who has over 80 patents to his name ranging from a Thermo-Electrochemical Converter to the super-soaker squirt gun – or like Chris Klaus who formed the trailblazing cyber-security company, Internet Security Systems, in the early 1990s while still a student at Georgia Tech and sold it to IBM in 2006 for $1.3 billion – or like Dr. Dennis Liotta and Dr. Raymond F. Schinazi and Dr. Woo-Baeg Choi who invented the revolutionary HIV drug now known as Emtriva. Meanwhile, Liotta’s son Matt has his own innovation success in a company called PodPonics – an urban hydroponic farming system that produces lettuces within recycled shipping containers. 

While still falling far behind California, the number of annual patents issued to Southern innovators grew nearly 60% between 2001 and 2014. One Southern innovator, Magic Leap, added almost 100 patent applications to the South’s intellectual property trove:  Magic Leap is a virtual reality venture based in Plantation, FL, that raised over $500 million from Google in 2014.

Especially if you extend innovation to include non-technological advances, Southern inventors and entrepreneurs have produced more than enough innovation to prove the inventive power of regional quirks, losses, passions and problems.