What does an Ollie have to do with innovation?

Perhaps you are somewhat astonished to see that we have chosen Rodney Mullen, a skateboarding icon, as the cover feature of this issue of “meeting BSI”. Yet, there is a greater connection between Rodney, and BSI than might be obvious at first glance. As a guest speaker at the Lemelson Center, the “Lord of the Board” explained what connects skateboarders and the open-source community, spoke of his personal benchmarks and what role communication plays in innovation. Let’s get out of our office chairs, hit the street and join Rodney Mullen in his playground.

Rodney was given his first skateboard by his father at the age of 10. He participated in his first competition that same year and took third place. Since then, he’s won 36 Freestyle Skateboarding World Championships and has revolutionized skating by inventing countless tricks. Skateboarding is not a sport for Rodney, but more a form of art through which he expresses himself. And which gave him the opportunity to establish himself in a community – a community of outsiders, much like himself. The community gave him a sense of belonging and motivated him at the same time. “One of the beauties of skateboarding is that we all draw from the same pool and give back so that others can do the same and keep expounding, very much like an open-source community.”

“We all draw from the same pool and give back.”

Rodney Mullen

What drives the community?

Rodney Mullen erklärt

According to Rodney: “The community itself is ex-tremely innovative. One of the reasons for this is because of its basic ethos. It’s very much about the open-source community. There’s something about authenticity. We skateboarders tend to be collections of people that really don’t belong to collections, we’re outsiders. Yet we seek a sense of belonging. The belonging comes on its own terms. And so the way we stand out within this community – because we’re all seeking to be respected, that’s a human need – and the way we do that is not with extremes. We don’t have metrics such as high and long jumps or like for cyclists where it’s measured in time. The metrics, in our sort of meritocracy, that determine who we are, is how we individuate ourselves by what we do and how we do it. How much do you stand apart as an individual by the way that you do the stuff that everybody else does. Maybe how you do it. Maybe where you do it. Maybe you recombine it. There are all kinds of ways. There is a pressure within how you earn respect. You earn respect by the degree by which you make yourself different. So what that does is to bring all these like-minded individuals who are trying to take the basic alphabet of what we do and expound it in ways that no one has ever done before. This is the inherent definition of invention.”

“Most creations are not done squared center – you always see them in your peripheral vision.”

Rodney Mullen

Where does innovation come from?

Rodney uniquely combines scientific curiosity and top athletic performance to develop something new: “I always had an interest in science and invention. We were doing little things, electromagnets, things like that. That was foundational for me, creating, having a little lab. On the other side, I was always into sports like baseball and karate, I did that for years. I was fairly naturally athletic. The combination of those was perfect for skateboarding and how I looked at it. Because skateboarding is physical, you could take it outside. But it was a way of constantly utilizing my surroundings. Jumping down curbs and over little drainage ditches. Little ways to invent new things and to entertain myself. The leverage, it’s all physics to some degree, it really is. Even the best skateboard-ers I know, they might not know the ‘language’ but they have an intuitive sense of leverages and balance and symmetries.”

For Rodney, skateboarding is one of the most innovative cultures or subcultures there is and has had an overproportional impact on the other extreme sports, like snowboarding. “Snowboarders – when they do their stuff – are grabbing. Why would you grab your board? It’s locked to your feet. It’s because it’s in emulation of skateboarding. The rollerbladers, the bike guys they’re doing tricks we invented on skateboards. There are lots of reasons for that. What-ever it is, the physical nature of what we do, the mechanics of it, that lends itself to discovery. More so than having something tied to your feet, for example. We can start going through the iteration of tricks that they never could do because of the nature of things. That’s it.” 

The process that Rodney invented for himself to innovate varies. “There is no formula for the process that I use to come up with ideas. There are books and books filled with templates and formulas. Because people are doing their best to express how you create. But by its very nature it’s illusive and you can’t contain it. You can’t say this is how I do it or this is how the mind sort of works. Everyone is different, depending on the nature of what you are and what you’ve already got under your belt. There are all kinds of moving variables. One of the most valuable things for me and how I practice today – I learned it when I first started studying physics – is to break things into component forms. Everything in vectors and components. You start breaking things apart. You can simplify things. That is how I always look at skating, as a series of catenated movements. I break tricks apart and then I look at those individual pieces and start to expound on all the related ideas. And as they become more rarified and branched out then, okay, you digest that and you feel that. And you go to another piece and another domain. Maybe you work something on flat, maybe you throw it up, something on a ledge, maybe do it on a bank, do it rotationally. All those will educate you as they branch out on to a granularity. It actually has cousins; it has its own family tree. And when you create something new, like I said, most creations are never done squared center – like down the line of fire. You always see them in your periph-eral vision. That is how they occur.

“Start breaking things apart. Simplify things. Don't look at the whole, look at the sub-pieces.”

Rodney Mullen

Rodney Mullen mit Skateboard Gruppe

What I mean is: go to some context or go to an area you are slightly unfamiliar with. And you start doing what’s familiar to you. And open yourself, don’t try to land it. Do what’s familiar to you. And something will connect with one of those branched relatives of some other sub-movement that naturally goes with it. And they will coalesce in new ways which you didn’t quite expect. And that is one of those things I mean when I talk about peripheral vision; it doesn’t happen when you are directly looking at it. When I get away from skateboarding and think directly I want to do this, it is rare that by the time I go out and try and film it, that this image I had by starring right at it, is actually done. It is always that I go out doing it and I realize that’s not going to work. And you come up with something better just by the feel of how it is done and it’s connecting these otherwise disconnected movements you would never see.” 

According to Rodney, some of the most influential innovations arose in new environments: “The context can change what we do. Therefore I question myself: How can I take that same trick to a different environment? I can take from the same pool, learn and further develop a trick.

I can also watch other guys do the basic movements. Some guys are standing on their boards like a tree. Just watching other skaters do simple tricks opens new doors and this helps multiply the possibilities to take skating much further. That is fantastic! By observing and optimizing simple technics like ‘how you hold yourself to minimize motion’ allowed for the biggest advancements in skateboarding.”

No innovation without communication

Rodney Mullen gibt Unterschrift

Rodney enthuses and inspires millions with his mod-esty and drive to deliver excellence within the community. This enthusiasm is based not least on his talent for communication. “It is definitely not because I am smarter. It is because I was able to communicate. I know the feel of something. A ton of guys know the feel of a skateboard better than I do. But because I could bridge it to the angles and to the basic design of something – to speak in engineering language – I was able to bridge that gap. That gave me a lot, it allowed for the pattern and the success of so much that we did. Of knowing the feeling of being the guy who understands the feel of it and articulating it in a language that turns into angles, measurements and thicknesses and densities and things like that. Being able to bridge that gap is an incredible power when it comes to formalization of ideas and making them actually into innovations whether they are products or tricks. 

A ton of guys may have the capacity to create things, when it comes to products. But they don’t have the feel. And tons of guys have the feel, but they can’t do the other. It is just the simplest bridges that make all the difference when it comes to real innovation.”

When asked whether these bridges can be created with intent or if they can only arise organically, Rodney answered: “The creative process is to some degree directed and analytic. At the same time, it’s not completely that either. It is just a mixture. The most creative or ‘spontaneous’ people think ahead as well. The role of innovation is to recognize voids and bring together synergies from other ways of looking at things that other people don’t see. To make it more minimalist. If anything, making things simpler rath-er than more complicated. Like Apple, I guess Jobs is good at that. As a kid skateboarding, I was just desperate not to be judged but to express myself. That’s what drew me to skateboarding. There was a lot of outside pressure saying you are going nowhere and you are throwing away your life. There was always pressure. You are going to end up a bum. I was made to quit skateboarding for just that reason several times. To find myself here at the Smithsonian, with you guys interested in what I have done, is the furthest extreme and the greatest honor I can think of.” 

“The role of innovation in society is to fill up voids, make straighter lines – make things simpler and more efficient.”

Rodney Mullen

Rodney Mullen

Rodney Mullen Portrait

Rodney Mullen (born August 17, 1966 in Gainesville, Florida) is the world’s best-known skateboarder. Crowned the Freestyle Skateboarding World Champion 36 times, he is consid-ered to be the “godfather of street skating”. He invented countless skateboard tricks, includ-ing the “flat Ollie”, “kick flip”, “dark slide”, “heel flip”, “360 flip” and a technique known as the “late flip”. Rodney, however, is not only a great skater who remains unbeaten today when it comes to flexibility and the range of tricks he can do. He also combines scientific knowledge with athletic ability to create something new. Rodney shared what companies and each one of us can learn from the skateboarding pioneer about innovation in an interview he made with students at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. In this edition of “meeting BSI”, we have compiled the core statements of his presentation for you, because Rodney inspired us. There are also a number of extracurricular champions at BSI, including surfers, snowboarders, kick boxers, national trainers and talented musicians, who contribute to the company with their extraordinary experience and knowledge. We are a creative mé-lange that shares one thing – we all love what we do. And what we do, we seek to constantly improve, further develop and make even simpler.

Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

The Lemelson Center produces educational programs, popular and scientific publications, hosts exhibitions, symposiums and podcasts about inventions. The mission of the Lemelson Center is to document, interpret and disseminate information about inventions and innovations, to encourage inventive creativity in young people and to foster an appreciation for the central role of invention and innovation. The Center offers long-term perspectives of the influence of inventions on American society. The program comprises an annual symposium, presentations, guest speakers and publications. In addition, the Lemelson Center organizes travelling exhibits, offers research opportunities and grants for scientists. Further information can be found at: invention.smithsonian.org