03 February 2009

1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration

This weekend all the hours standing in freezing cold of hope and change finally took their toll, and I succumbed to a hacking cough that would sound respectable on a 30-year veteran of Fleet Street, and mysteriously only arrives in the dead of night as I am trying to get to sleep (the cough, that is, not the journo). I have therefore been tired and grumpy, a potentially devastating combination for those nearest and dearest to me (or collateral damage as I like to call them), and so it has been a quiet few days as I sequestered myself away fearful of the damage my uncontrollable grump might wreak.

However in advance of this phlegmy onslaught I did venture out on Friday night to the Science Gallery for a lecture on "Lighting Up Africa", as part of the 'Lightwaves' exhibition currently running and celebrating the 1 year anniversary of the opening of the Science Gallery. The talk was on the use of microbial fuel cells (essentially using the charge generated by bacterial reactions in soil to charge a battery) as a low cost energy source for lighting and many other things, such as mobile phone charging, in the majority world where most citizens are not connected to the electricity grid. I met some of the folks at Lebone, the NGO behind this project, last year before they had reached the initial field trials stage and was impressed by how much their project has advanced since April.

It was also good to get a chance to talk over dinner with Professor David Edwards, founder of Le Laboratoire in Paris and the undergraduate interdisciplinary 'Idea Translation Lab' program in Harvard, from which the Lebone group emerged. Edwards is also the author of "Artscience", about which I wrote last year, and I was interested in finding out directly from folks who have participated in the 'Idea Translation Lab' program and the Laboratoire how exactly a culture of creativity is fostered, and how the cross-pollination of academic disciplines is achieved.

In my mind I pictured a scene where innovation happened organically, that people sharing the same physical space would slowly start to share the same mind-space and ideas would blossom, but after talking to the Lebone team it seems that innovation needs a firm hand behind it to gather everyone around a big table on a regular basis, throw out some ideas and occasionally steer the resulting conversations in a more structured and productive direction.

Innovation, apparently, does not necessarily self-propagate. It needs a force external to itself to act as facilitator, mentor, midwife and on occasion as adjudicator.

Just like the economy so.

The Science Gallery
NYT article on Lebone
The Idea Translation Lab at Harvard



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