The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
Lemelson Institute

Places of Invention:
The First Lemelson Institute

Organized by the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Lemelson Archives, Incline Village, Nevada

16-18 August 2007

» From the director
» Executive summary
» Mission & goals
» Setting the stage
The legacy of Jerome Lemelson
Getting the inventive juices flowing
The role of an inventor's style on places of invention
The power of place
» Framing the task
» Overview of research on places of invention
» Examining places of invention
Creative people: the people/place nexus
Creative places: the people/place nexus
Creating places of invention: regions and new spaces
Creating places of invention: adapting existing spaces
» Making ideas concrete: public dissemination
» Findings
» Participants
» Agenda
» Acknowledgments
» About the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
» About the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
»Appendix 1: "Places of Invention" syllabus (PDF)
»Appendix 2: "Astronomical Places of Invention" (PDF)


The findings of the Institute offer insight into the qualities of physical space that are conducive to innovation; the ways that creative people shape the spaces in which they work; and common creative features among places ranging from the garages and basements of independent inventors to academic or government laboratories to regions and cyberspace.

Places of invention that “work” share some common features.

  • Flexibility. Truly creative spaces are flexible. They are easily reconfigured, modular, and responsive to the needs of different people and different projects. It can be shown that as buildings and spaces become more solid and permanent, so do their occupants, often with a resulting waning of creativity.
  • Leadership. Places of invention are characterized by managers who articulate and promote a clear mission, support individuals’ research freedom in pursuit of that mission, encourage interdisciplinary teams, and manage with a “soft touch” characterized by minimal hierarchy and bureaucracy. Often, an influential mentor is responsible for originally bringing a group of creative people together.
  • Communication. Creative places make it easy for people to discuss, share, and argue ideas, whether in the laboratory or the cafeteria. By maximizing both formal and informal contact between individuals, such spaces encourage cross-fertilization of thinking.
  • Balance between inclusion and seclusion. In order to succeed, inhabitants need to balance their need for solitude with their need for interaction with others. Key to achieving this balance is giving the individual private, personal space to work, while at the same time offering inviting communal spaces, especially those that foster interdisciplinary and multigenerational interaction. A space that is dictated and inflexible is unlikely to succeed as a creative space.

Similarly, individuals working in creative spaces exhibit some common desires and tensions.

  • Arrangement of the space. Creative individuals want to arrange, modify, and adapt their personal work spaces to meet their own needs and whimsy. It is almost a cliché that creative people have messy spaces and espouse a hands-on mentality.
  • Control and lack of control. Chaos and lack of control are vital to creative people. It is crucial to remove them from normal, predictable surroundings, and to give them the freedom to do what they want if they gather the resources needed.
  • Tension between planned and unplanned spaces. Is it possible to “plan” for spontaneity? Probably not. Planning creative spaces seems to work best if done in stages, with evaluation and adjustment along the way.

Communities, whether large or small, play an important role in shaping places of invention.

  • The individual and the group. While the idea of the “lone inventor” has been dismissed as a myth used to explain the work of inventors to the world, it is still true that most teams have a leader, that a charismatic person is often the reason teams form, and that in spite of the move towards building consortia and other types of groups, individual fiefdoms of invention persist. Why? Part of the answer lies in a continuing bias to focus on the individual, a bias that is supported by the prize system and the patent process.
  • Replicating successful models. With few exceptions, spin-off institutions and replicated regions have not been successful.
  • Changing forms of communication and interaction. Social networking and forms of distributed knowledge are changing the ways in which inventors work (for example, by reducing secrecy and creating “virtual” teams of colleagues in disparate places).
  • The role of patents. The patent system still acts as a constraint and a benefit to invention. While inventors point to the time that the process, and possible ensuing litigation, take away from creative work, inventors who live in countries with a weak or nonexistent patent system see that as a disincentive to invention.

The idea of “flow” or continuity is an actor throughout the history of invention.

  • Science v. technology. While definitions of “science” and “technology” abound, it is more useful to see science, technology, application, invention, and art as part of the continuum of creativity. This viewpoint is useful in understanding the changing nature of the inventive process from the late 19th to the 21st century.
  • Temporal nature of creative spaces. Creative institutions have life spans. On average, research laboratories, for example, are productive for about 20 years. It is important to examine how the factors that make a creative place successful in the beginning may come to stifle it later on. Creative regions exhibit a similar, though longer-term, pattern. Questioning what resources exist, how long they last, what the competition for them is, and given those factors, how long the institution’s way of operating can be maintained, will begin to explain this phenomenon.
  • Encouraging interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary interests. Invention brings together knowledge from different disciplines to create something new and exhibits a long history of mapping ideas from one field onto another.
  • Connections across time and topic. Linkages are important to understanding the history of invention. One of the inventor’s most powerful tools is his or her ability to create analogies. The act of “transgressive cognition,” or the ability to leap over intellectual barriers, is a constant.


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