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Labun Jordan: Innovation Cultivation

08/10/11 7:55AM By Helen Labun Jordan
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(HOST) As Vermont works to cultivate creative capital, commentator Helen Labun Jordan has a simple suggestion for how we can encourage the innovator in all of us.

(LABUN JORDAN) When I was a kid I had an elaborate system for making "paper" out of grass trimmings. It went something like this: rake up the grass after the lawn is mowed, put that grass in a plastic wading pool, water it down, stamp on it like grapes in wine country, smoosh the resulting paste into mats on an old shower curtain to bake in the sun, and finally cut the result into geometric shapes.

Any further details are lost to memory.

I assume that the production line was also filled with superstition, since I was big into mixing industry with magic back then. There were the carefully sculpted mud cakes that I hoped would turn into real cakes if I left them in a certain spot overnight; the miniature home building boom I started in my friend Chaya's woods in case lack of readymade houses was the reason no fairies lived there; or the backyard ramps I constructed so I could sit on a skateboard and pretend that they were a roller coaster. That last project didn't make any sense, since I was terrified of roller coasters and had no interest in riding one.

In July, I was reminded of my paper production days while learning to ted hay.  This chore had me driving a tractor for only the second time. The first time I drove through a fence. I had my concerns about making another attempt, with heavy equipment in tow - it seemed nothing good could come out of my participation. But then, driving very, very slow circles around the fields, I realized that if I took away the tractors and tedders and rakes and balers from the haying process, I was back to the same principle as stamping in the wading pool: we were playing around with grass to make it into something more useful than lawn. I could see how the modern process of haying all began with curious people experimenting on a summer day.

Tracing the inventions around us back to some sort of familiar origin isn't easy. Out of my childhood mixture of industry and magic, I might as well have kept believing in the magic for all I know about how smart phones or iPads came to be. As a result, today I have trouble imagining ever inventing anything myself.

I've heard this sort of distance blamed on the computer age, on the rapid rate of innovation that left points of common reference behind somewhere around 1950. But I think that's an excuse for not trying. Every scientist, engineer, computer nerd, every single person out there pushing the innovations of today began back as a kid with more or less the same body of knowledge every other kid had.

I think it's time to make a habit of telling the stories behind new inventions in a way that everyone can relate to - because that would be the best starting point for encouraging the innovator in all of us.
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