Virginia Tech and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History recently teamed up for a workshop, “Can Innovators Be Made? A Dialogue on the Past, Present, and Future of Innovation Expertise.” 

The workshop brought together about 30 practitioners and scholars concerned with the cultivation of innovators and innovation from the early 20th century to today. 

“This event’s focus on dialogue is essential,” Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands said in his opening remarks. “Innovation by definition happens through exchange. Ideas and tools are only successful if they are taken up, modified, and reused.

“Bringing together practitioners and critical scholars draws on the full range of strengths of our comprehensive university and its partners to study in tandem the means for — and the meanings of — making innovators,” Sands continued. “This matters because one of the central findings of innovation experts is the importance of reflection in innovative careers. Those who are able to interpret their own evolving ideals and realities in a rapidly changing and uncertain world are best positioned for a lifetime of success in effecting real change in their lives and communities.”

The two-day workshop opened March 20 at the Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington  and moved to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on March 21. It was funded by a Humanities Symposium grant from Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; a Science, Engineering, Art, and Design grant from the Institute for Creativity Arts and Technology at Virginia Tech; the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program in Human Centered Design; the Office of the Vice President, National Capital Region; the Department of Science and Technology in Society; and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Organizers of the event were: Matthew Wisnioski, associate professor, Department of Science and Technology in Society and senior Fellow at the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology; Eric Hintz, historian at the Lemelson Center; and Marie Stettler of Edgerton, Wisconsin, a Ph.D. student in science and technology studies.

Through intense, small-group conversation, participants reflected on the history, contemporary experience, and future direction of efforts to develop “innovation expertise” — the methods, institutional practices, and habits of being that individuals can learn for the benefit of self and society. Participants discussed 12 precirculated papers.

In addition to Wisnioski and Stettler, the following Virginia Tech faculty contributed papers or commentaries to the workshop sessions: Janet Abbate, associate professor and co-director; Sonja Schmid, assistant professor, Department of Science and Technology in Society, National Capital Region; Ben Knapp, professor of computer science and director, Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology; and Donna Riley, professor of engineering education and affiliate faculty in the Department of Science and Technology in Society.

“The shared conversation among renowned historians, venture capitalists, design executives, economists, K-12 learning experts, engineering educators, student innovators, and policy advocates and policy makers — which may sound like a recipe for disaster — was a tremendous success,” Wisnioski said. “A key message across the group was that ‘innovation,’ which emerged as a means to a variety of ends, increasingly is an end in and of itself.”

According to Wisnioski, the workshop, which supports the broader impacts of his National Science Foundation Scholars Award, is expected to generate an edited volume with a premier academic press for a readership as diverse as the workshop’s contributors.