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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”