My mother, in her advanced age, used to justify some unhealthy habits of food and drink by remarking (only half-jokingly), “If we wait long enough, the scientists will disprove themselves, and our vices will be virtues.” In this simple remark, she was reflecting the quandary of her era: respect and enthusiasm, tinged with some skepticism, about the breathtaking pace of scientific achievements.
We still hold our scientists in high regard for their intelligence, curiosity, and determination. But we demand better communication. After all, we may never hope to fully comprehend the science of crippling diseases or the Higgs boson, but we know that fear arises when open communication with our scientists is lost and trust is broken. Science centers and museums help communicate the relevance of science and the excitement of discovery.
And today, our global society has expanded its fascination to include the creative change makers among us: the innovators. Here, too, our science centers have an important responsibility. There are countless articles written about the five (or seven or ten) critical skills of the successful innovator. The book The Innovator’s DNA describes five so-called “discovery skills”: associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. The analysis states further that these five skills are not innate—and ironically they often come more naturally to youth and diminish with age.
In fact, most science centers and museums strive (and largely succeed) to encourage these discovery skills in myriad ways. So what is our task today? We will certainly continue our hallmark approach of inquiry, observation, networking varied perspectives on issues, and experimentation. But, let’s also acknowledge that today’s tech-savvy generation has not eliminated some of the same probing questions of my mother’s era. Are we helped or hindered, informed or invaded, freed or shackled by rapidly evolving innovations in our lives?
To these concerns, our attention to the first discovery skill—associating—can be key. This skill refers to an appreciation of the societal context into which innovation will be introduced and the ensuing implications (positive or negative, real or perceived). With this perspective in mind, innovation can be an exciting, nonthreatening prospect for the creator and for the beneficiary.
So, let’s encourage in our visitors the discovery skills that can yield the most far-reaching and novel results. Let’s also cultivate in our young creators this sense of associating. The greatest innovators succeed not because their skills and perspectives are so different from the every day, but because they comprehend the every day so deeply as to recognize the ramifications of change and create accordingly.