Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards

“Our country was built on a culture of revolution and innovation” – Art Molella, founding director of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

“Every step forward in this nation has been directly due to or is closely allied with that wonderful faculty for delving into untried fields peculiar to Americans,”  –  the New York Tribune

Editor’s note: Much less familiar than the Academy Awards, The American Ingenuity Awards, In it’s second annual year, were presented in November. If you missed them, or want another look, Jason Williams filed this report and we’ve added the recap video too.

To recognize and honor the importance of American innovation, the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards were created.  These awards shed light on the brilliant new achievements in science, technology, art and society.  Nine winners were selected in 2013:

  • Benh Zeitlin: The young indie director lets his imagination fly in his debut film, the Academy Award nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
  • Pardis Sabeti: This rollerblading physician-scientist-rockstar blazes a new view of infectious disease by probing the evolution of genes
  • Jack Andraka: A Maryland high-school sophomore who reads science journals for fun may have invented a new diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer
  • Esperanza Spalding: A musical phenom creating an entirely new direction – and a new generation of fans – for the quintessential American art form of jazz
  • Anne Kelly Knowles: The scholar is applying cutting-edge technology to geography, changing our perspective on historic events from Gettysburg to the Holocaust
  • Bryan Stevenson: The legal crusader has given thousands of young people in America’s prisons the most valuable gift – a second chance
  • Elon Musk: This entrepreneur is launching private cargo into space, churning out upscale electric cars and changing the way we think about solar power
  • Jim Anderson: With high-altitude spy planes, a Harvard chemist soars into the stratosphere and discovers an alarming link between climate change and ozone loss
  • Sebastian Thrun: An expert in artificial intelligence is now turning his expertise to humans, revolutionizing the way people around the world learn

These nine individuals represent the best of the best – some of the most innovative minds in our country today.  So as these geniuses collect their Ingenuity Award, the “Oscar of innovation”, what can the rest of us hope to learn from their work?  It turns out quite a bit. There are several elements of success that run through the stories of each of these winners.  Several insights and lessons the rest of us can apply to our own work:

Innovation is About Breaking the Rules

“There’s an old film-making adage: Avoid water, children and animals – they’ll destroy your film,” says Benh Zeitlin.  All three elements are integral to Beasts of the Southern Wild which was just nominated for four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Benh ignored conventional wisdom and gambled on his own powers of invention to make the film.  He made the movie on a $1.8 million shoestring budget, hand-held 16-millimeter cameras, jury-rigged sets, untrained actors and a grass-roots collective of artists from around the country.

Be Flexible, Open to New Ideas

“I’m searching for the most beautiful version of ideas that I receive, leaving the windows open for influences outside jazz,” says Ezperanza Spalding. By opening herself to new ideas outside of her specific genre/industry, she aspires to explore and create music for a “larger cross-section of listeners.”

Behn Zeitlin’s film crew adapted to whatever was going on while filmingBeasts.  “The culture of film-making is antagonistic toward chaos.  Most movies are designed to maximize order and structure… We invited chaos into the process,” he says.  Zeitlin knew that by coming into production with a preordained vision of how everything was going to be, he risked squeezing out spontaneity.


Esperanza Spalding gives most of the credit to her success to “collaborative accomplishment”.  “There’s a cultural myth that’s rampant in the entertainment industry that minimizes collaboration, that overemphasizes soloists and stars and focuses on the individual.  I don’t ever want to cater to that myth in our culture.”  Spalding explains that collaboration is a kind of learning lab, where musical ideas and life philosophy are explored.  “When I play with Terri Lynne Carrington or Geri Allen or even Prince, yes, what we’re doing musically is one element…, but 95 percent of it is hanging around and talking… I learn so much every day from those kinds of interactions… Innovations are part of the larger group’s exchange.”

Be Curious, Ask Questions

Anne Kelly Knowles has always loved places where history happened.  This lifelong curiosity has led her to constantly ask questions about the places she visits and studies.  Questions like what was Robert. E Lee thinking at Gettysburg?  “She (Knowles) is a pioneer…there’s an ingenuity in the way she uses spatial imagination to see things and ask questions that others haven’t,” says Edward Muller, a historical geographer at the University of Pittburgh.

Artificial intelligence expert Sebastian Thrun went to Stanford in 2001 where the Silicon Valley spirit hit him like a revelation.  “In Germany there’s just many questions you’re not allowed to ask,” he says, “and for me, the core of innovation is for very smart people to ask questions.”  This is evident in Silicon Valley culture. Leaders like Thrun don’t just go and proclaim something because it’s always been this way.  There is this “unbelievable desire to ask questions.”

Think Big

“Taking one idea and seeing how to extrapolate something even more expansive, that’s the difference between being great and being a genius,” says John Hopkins pathologist Anirban Maitra, when discussing teenage prodigy Jack Andraka.  “He’s ahead of his time in so many ways…who comes up with ideas like this at 14?  It’s crazy.”

“Elon Musk drives this think-bigger mentality.  As engineers we tend to keep things small, but he is always imagining something so large it’s terrifying,” says JB Straubel.  Elon Musk is the CEO and chief designer at Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX.  Thinking small is not on his agenda. Musk wants to fundamentally alter the way we travel and the energy we consume. He talks about nuclear fusion, colonizing Mars and airplanes that take off vertically.  Not only is he thinking big, but he’s getting big results too. SpaceX recently became the first private venture to successfully launch a space capsule, Dragon, to dock with the International Space Station.

“If you don’t think big, you won’t do big things,” says Sebastian Thrun. “Whether it’s a big problem or a small problem, I spend the same amount of time on it – so I might as well take a big problem that really moves society forward.”

Focus on Helping Society

Working on problems to help move society forward is probably the most prevalent theme across this year’s Ingenuity Award winners. Their individual success has come from the results of their work to help others.

Mental Floss magazine has named Ingenuity Award winner Pardis Sabeti one of “eight trailblazing scientists about to change your life.”  Eric Lander, director of the genomics research center Broad Institute, had this to say about her.  “She has this force of will and a caring about making the world a better place, really fixing the world.”  Sabeti was born in Tehran, Iran, where her father, Parviz, was a high ranking official.  “…he cared about his nation more than himself.  His courage and conviction have always driven me to want to make a difference.” Further proof and praise of her work comes from Christian Happi, director of the Infectious Diseases Laboratory in Nigeria.  “Apart from being dedicated, generous with her time, generous with her knowledge – generous with everything, really – she just really wants to be involved. That type of generosity is a quality that not many people have.”

Duke University professor Cathy Davidson discusses Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity as a catalyst for re-engineering online learning, citing his “tireless inventiveness and concern for the betterment of society.”  Even when he was starting out in robotics and artificial intelligence, Thrun was thinking beyond the lab.  “I always wanted to make robots really smart, so smart that I wouldn’t just impress my immediate scientific peers, but where they could really help people in society,” he says.  The fuel for his passion on Udacity comes from his “aha moment” while going through some of the many emails he has received from students taking his classes, “Wow, I’m reaching people that really need my help.”

“Anne (Kelly Knowles) thinks not just about new technology but how mapping can be applied across disciplines, to all aspects of society,” says Harvard historian Peter Bol.  “The technology is just a tool, and what really matters is how you use it,” says Anne, verifying Bol’s praise.

When Elon Musk’s became PayPal, he was the largest shareholder when it was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion.  Musk walked away with nearly $180 million and could have taken his new-found wealth and escaped into a life of luxury.  Instead, he has risked most of his finances funding and developing his new ideas.  “For me it was never about money, but solving problems for the future of humanity.”  He does not laugh or crack a smile when he says this.  “There is no hint of irony,” according to Smithsonian interviewer Carl Hoffman.

Here’s the Video Recap of the 2013 Annual Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards

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Jason is a corporate Marketing Director and the Communications Director for Centric: Indy’s Innovation Network. Centric strives to elevate Indianapolis as a globally recognized center of innovation. You can connect with Jason on Twitter: @jawbrain.

Jason Williams

Innovator. Marketer. Connector. Jason Williams is a curious explorer whose purpose is to drive innovation through capacity-building connections. With nearly 20 years in corporate marketing and innovation community leadership positions, he has had a front row seat to the common challenges and popular solutions shared by leaders and organizations across many different industries and sectors.




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