Innovation: lessons from a historian


The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

23rd May 2018

Clusters, leaders, and corporate culture are the secret. An interview with Smithsonian Institution’s historian Arthur P. Molella.
“We know much more today about sustaining creative cultures,” said Arthur P. Molella, Historian, and Director Emeritus of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Scholars have identified changes in the innovation processes, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, and found ground to take a historical approach to assess complex contemporary innovation practices[i].
One such finding is that physical, social and cultural proximity matter in creating and sustaining innovative environments. History has proven this time and again, and Silicon Valley is the latest proof to the claim. There are special mixes of people, resources, and geography that better foster innovation.
Cluster is a modern manifestation, a neologism, for a what has been a natural physical configuration that facilitates invention and innovation, Molella explains. Clusters of invention and innovation perhaps became more evident in the 60s and the 70s, but were present in Renaissance Florence, in the Oxford Cambridge corridor, in 13th century Baghdad. They are a social phenomenon that pulls highly creative, divergent thinkers. It was the same force that in the 1870s placed Hartford, Connecticut, at the heart of the industrial revolution in the United States. Gun-maker “Colt Armory and its neighboring firms …

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