Archive for November, 2009

TEDxNASA

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

I spent the day at TEDxNASA and wish to share a brief (3000+ word) summary of the presentations and my reaction to them. First I need to set the stage a little bit. NASA is a rare government agency that has the unique ability to capture the imagination of the public and influence the future – some might say that NASA has the ability/charter to create the future. A brief review of the history of NASA shows this expectation is justified. NASA has, arguably, been in a bit of a slump recently. Much of the cutting edge long-term research capability has been traded for near-term developmental work. The shift from exploring possibilities to executing certainty, from embracing risk to meeting schedule milestones, has reduced NASA’s ability to create a wondrous future. With new challenges facing the world – energy, climate change, asteroid impacts, … – each of which having no obvious implementable solution, NASA needs to restore and extend its past abilities to create and innovate. The TEDxNASA event was designed, IMHO, to shock the creative hearts and minds of NASA and its partners. I think it did a very good job at that. I came away unsettled and amazed by what these folks have imagined and accomplished. The message being if they can do that so can we. The TEDxNASA event was a series of talks (some live, some on video), performances, and periods of social interaction between the audience and the “cast”. What follows is my summary and reactions to each of the program elements in the order of occurrence.

The Langley Center Director, Lesa Roe, opened the “conference” with a brief set of remarks. This was a side of our director that I had not seen before. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what she said or, more likely, how she said it that gave me the impression that this is now a different Lesa Roe. Having worked on developing the center’s Creativity and Innovation plan, I can see that she is 100% behind this effort to regain/surpass past research capabilities and impact the world.

Sam Horn introduced herself as the Mistress of Ceremonies and discussed the program and how things were going to work throughout the day. She did an excellent job of keeping things moving along and on schedule. We rarely deviated from the published schedule by more than a few minutes. More on her later.

We then had a “What is TED” video. If you do not know about TED, go to TED.com and catch up on what you have been missing.

Dr. Paul Aravich was the first real presenter and what a great way to get things going. This guy has some energy! In just a few minutes, using real cadaver brains, skulls and spinal cords he shocked us all into the realization that essentially everything we are, the universe, is contained between our ears. What we are and can become is affected by how we treat ourselves. The last frontier to explore is right there in our heads. He talks quite passionately about mental illnesses and whether they were ultimately of physiological origin (as he believes). My main take away messages are that passion enhances communication and focuses the mind to excel. Second, that problems and their causes/solutions are inherently subjective – you interpret things based on your experiences. Others looking at the same thing will likely see different problems, causes, and solutions. Perspective is everything.

The next speaker was Gregg Fraley, a Creativity and Innovation Consultant. He presented us with a set of tools that prepares/allows us to be creative and help others be creative. Creating an environment, both internally and externally, is essential to maximizing the creative abilities present in everyone. Everyone is and can be creative. I’ve been exposed to a lot of Creativity training and tools for the individual (internal) and groups (external). Gregg Fraley’s talk reinforced what I have come to believe is important. It was a good, direct, and practical talk on tools that anyone could employ today to be more creative. Gregg is participating in a one day workshop at Langley on Monday. After talking to him later in the evening after the presentations concluded, I’m looking forward to the workshop.

Next we viewed a video by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist. She talked about what it is like to have a stroke based on her own personal experience of having had a stroke in the left side of her brain. You should really view the video it is well worth the time. I have read quite a bit about the mind-body connections ever since high school. I’ve also read and tried many techniques for quieting the mind to detach from the ongoing mental noise. I never quite understood either the objective or methodology. Her talk brought it all together for me in a moment and I understand this now. I can’t yet do it, but I understand it. The objective is to attain the ultimate state of having surpressed the left verbal, time and space aware, and judgmental portion of the brain in order to just see things as they really are. This is extremely relevant for creativity since in such a state everything is possible, including experiencing things from any perspective. I think this presentation is in my top 3 from TEDxNASA.

Michael Stevens (piano) and Dave Ballou (trumpet) performed a jazz piece. I like jazz and this pushed beyond my envelope of comfort. Having tried to listen to the atonal Keith Jarrett years ago and failed, I found this performance fascinating. As I suspected and confirmed later by talking to Dave afterward, this was pretty much an impromptu jam session. I enjoyed the way the two traded the lead and built on what the other had just done. The piece developed in unpredictable ways as was very free form. What I took away from this was creativity is enhanced by trust in the team member’s abilities, freedom to explore, no fear of failure, and reinforcement/confirmation through adoption. Whatever one of these performers attempted, the other was able to accomplish and extend with a completely different tool/instrument. It was a pleasure to watch two accomplished people be in the moment of creation.

Author Nancy Vogl talked about her experiences relating to diversity. The talk also evolved into a discussion of how points of view are often (falsely) rooted in fear or group dynamics. View things/people/facts/events as they are not what you have been told to see.

The “Math Lady from Space”, Brenda Barrow, came out and demonstrated how having fun and exploring different perspectives can facilitate learning – in this case math for young students. Creativity requires constant learning and exposure to new experiences. Some of that includes looking at old things in new ways. I’ve often wondered how I would begin to communicate with an alien. I always start with math.

Renowned space-themed artist Pat Rawlings talked about how he creates his scenes depicting every day life in futuristic settings. The big take away for me was that creativity requires a problem to work on. He stated that if given total freedom he has a difficult time producing anything. He needs to have some constraints before he can release his creative abilities.

A simple solution to an important problem was the subject of the next video presentation, “How to stop disease spread through the reuse of syringes in the third world” by Marc Koska. Simple, design a syringe that has a break away plunger. I’m not convinced that would actually work, since I can think of at least two ways to circumvent the break away feature. Nevertheless, my take away was that big problems can often be broken down into smaller and simpler problems.

We were treated to some real innovative thinking by Dr. Dennis Hong of Virginia Tech. His robotics group has produced some amazing concepts, designs that most people would not have imagined. He talked about the importance of suspending judgment and encouraging fun. Letting people run with an idea and develop a passion for things is essential for creativity.

Break for lunch.

The second block began with an inspirational song by Jana Stanfield entitled “If I were Brave”. Listening closely to the words it was clear that this was about increasing abilities and accomplishments by releasing/overcoming your fears – whatever they may be. For me this meant fear of ridicule, or fear of failure.

Sam Horn talked about her concept of Serendestiny. An interesting concept that involves acting on a hunch to set destiny in motion. Doing things just a little bit differently, or going outside of your usual sphere of activities can be just the thing that starts something big. Interesting idea.

Radio Show Host John St.Augustine is my age and talked about his life-changing experience/memories of the first moon landing. Every time I see that video of Neil stepping onto the lunar surface, it gives me chills – a moment etched deeply into my existence. His point: we have already done unimaginably great things – Imagine, discuss, and then do.

Loretta Whitesides discussed her somewhat idealistic vision of how humanity can take the best of ourselves and spread it across the galaxy as we inevitably expand our presence beyond Earth. An interesting vision of the future many years from now. It is important that you have a deep belief in the importance of what you are working on, that it matters, and will make a difference.

We were originally scheduled to have a live video link to the International Space Station and Astronaut Leyland Melvin, but that fell through. Fortunately they had a back up plan. They showed a prerecorded video of Melvin that started off being narrated by a youngster (very early teens?), Tyler Cole. The content was more of the usual “Earth is one planet” theme and I was more impressed with the performance of Tyler Cole. He exhibited an unusual degree of comfort narrating in front of such a large audience.

A video of Dan Pink discussing the Science of Motivation made some initially surprising claims. As the model for business switches from producing things more efficiently to producing innovations, the old model of rewards as motivation apparently fails miserably. What makes a bigger impact on creativity and innovation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I guess I’ve known this all along, but never knew that I knew it. This talk is also in my top 3 for the day.

Innovation Consultant Steve Shapiro talked about the concept of open innovation. The basic premise here is that stealing a solution from someone else is still innovation. Sometimes the solution to your problem already exists. Someone else may have already solved a similar problem. You just need to be able to see the similarities and have the exposure/awareness to diverse fields. Bottom line: being the very best in a narrow field isn’t enough. You need to be broad (too). I agree with this 100%. There is no substitute for being aware of the world and all of its diversity. As William Gibson has said in various ways “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.” This is very important to remember.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Anna McGowan is such a wonderful speaker. An engineer from Langley, she talked about the role of innovation in aviation and its ability to deliver “The World on Demand”. I agree with others who indicate that this may have been too big a topic for an 18 minute time slot. Creativity and innovation often arise in support of a compelling vision. Anna is a very engaging speaker with a vision.

A video, featuring Micheal Pritchard, used the problem of providing safe clean water to billions of people to illustrate that big problems can be made small by asking the right question. Providing potable water to everyone on the planet is a huge problem. The required production and distribution infrastructure is immense and unaffordable to many nations. So think small instead. The practical solution is to develop an inexpensive method that enables a single person to make their own potable water from any source as needed. Take away: turn those big intractable problems into little problems that you can solve.

The next segment was a slide show of the art of Chakaia Booker. Ms. Booker is a walking piece of art in her own right, but the slide show demonstrated what she sees when she looks at an old discarded rubber tire. She dissects and reassembles tires to create shapes and textures that are unexpected. The point: no one sees things the same way that you do.

Guitarist Mike Rayburn treated us to a little of his creativity. He started off by playing a guitar in a way I have never seen before. His motivational statement “what could I do with a guitar that has not been done in the past 500 years” really hit home. He then took us on a quick tour of other things he can do by simply asking what if. That question is very liberating, creatively speaking, and allows Mike to turn many common compositions into unique and delightful experiences (e.g. Led Zeppelin does Dr Seuss – Green Eggs & Ham set to Black Dog). This was very likely my top experience of the day. Just ask what if and see where the freedom takes you.

Break and a little mingling: talked to Dave Ballou for a while and watched a tiny robot play kickball with a human.

The final segment started with Dr. Sue Morter. Being a scientist and knowing a few things about electromagnetic radiation/fields and quantum mechanics, I found her underlying message of freeing ourselves from our own self created filters and restrictions overwhelmed by her careless abuse of physical analogies mingled free-form with new age concepts. At least I hope they were analogies from physics. I guess I was able to free myself from my own filters enough to see the underlying message, but it was tough. Perhaps that was the point – letting go of your point of view to experience that of others. Gutsy move including her in the program. I’m still uncomfortable after this one.

A video featuring Nandan Nilekani uses the history of India to demonstrate how ideas create the future. Interesting and informative, but I did not get much out of this one.

Dr. Joel Levine was up next and talked about the science enabled by flying aircraft on other planets. I know Joel very well since he works in the same directorate that I do at NASA Langley. This was perhaps his best presentation I have ever seen. He demonstrated how important questions (focus) and teamwork (trust) can result in innovations – in this case the Mars Airplane – that enable breakthroughs. He included two videos, the first an animation of how the Mars Airplane might be packaged and delivered to the Martian atmosphere, and a second showing actual footage from the deployment and transition to autonomous flight of a scale model being dropped from a balloon at 103,000′ altitude (the point in Earth’s atmosphere similar to the flight conditions at Mars) demonstrating that the concept works. This is the creativity and innovation process NASA-style. Joel managed to subdue his normal tendency for hyperbole to a great extent. Super stuff and it was a tough decision to make, but sorry you narrowly missed being in my top 3.

Back to back videos on inventions (the state between creation and innovation) the Liquid Filled Eyeglasses (Josh Silver’s example of how to turn a big problem into a small one) and Sixth Sense Technology (Pattie Maes’ example of asking what if) came next. Both are excellent examples of how a question or problem is needed to focus creativity to achieve practical results.

Jana Stanfield returned to the stage and sang another song this time accompanied by a sign language interpreter. They sang “I Wish You Strength”. I was engrossed in watching the signer “sing” the song. Seeing the singer and signer perform side by side was a Rosetta stone of perspective. Very unusual performance – definitely a new experience that put me into a different perspective.

Mitch Albom followed and discussed how streams of events (actually lives of two other people) crossed and impacted his own life. This one was a stretch for me. If I had to guess, the intent/message was “do the right thing” or a variation on reward comes in different forms. Perhaps I was just tired after a long day that seemed to go by very quickly.

The last performance was from a 13 year old singer, Jamia Nash (accompanying on piano was Michael Stevens). Before she sang, this young lady demonstrated a presence, thoughtfulness, and maturity of a much older person. She challenged the adults to renew the hopes and aspirations of a younger generation and to teach them how to become the next generation of leaders through example (Hint: the way we’re acting now ain’t cutting it). Holy cow! No pressure here. She then demonstrated her amazing voice by singing appropriately “What a Wonderful World.” She nailed it.

They then did a wrap with the usual thank you’s handed out to the group of dedicated volunteers. Idea to reality in 8 weeks! Well done folks, very well done.

The reception afterward was interesting. I played a game of chess to a gentleman’s draw (much to my relief) while standing and having a conversation. I spent quite a bit of time talking to Gregg Fraley. I had some wonderful bacon-wrapped scallops, and spicy chicken nuggets (real meat not glued together bits of “parts”), and a glass of white wine. I met a few other folks and speakers.

TEDxNASA was a great experiment. I think it succeeded at its intended purpose. I did not connect with everything, but I’m sure what missed me probably resonated with someone else in the audience. I do know that despite the conference subtitle “Space to Create”, a few “personalities” who earn a living out in the blogging world did not get it. Perhaps no one ever told them that NASA is about more than just “space exploration”. They need to understand that space exploration is only one of NASA’s current jobs, those jobs will certainly come and go, morphing into other, as yet, unimagined activities that NASA will likely create itself. The common thread for NASA is to dare to imagine and then create the future – for the betterment of everyone here on spaceship Earth.