When I first began my job at the Lemelson Center, I was most surprised by the Innoskate program. At the time I did not quite understand why the Smithsonian would have an initiative focused on invention, innovation, and history in the arena of skateboarding. I have now been with the Lemelson Center for nearly 6 years and have had the opportunity to experience three Innoskate programs firsthand. The connections between innovation and skateboarding have become much clearer.
I tried skateboarding when I was a teen, but I never really took to it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the activity, it was that I have awful balance and coordination. I was just not cut out for it. I had a number of friends who were quite good skateboarders and huge fans of the sport, although at the time many people may not have considered it a sport. This was during the late 1980s. Skateboarding at that time was very mainstream, but it still seemed more like a culture and a hobby than a sport. This sentiment still holds true for many people, although that may soon change. In 2020, skateboarding will make its debut as an official Olympic competition. Regardless of how it has been defined previously, the Olympic competition has the potential to solidify skateboarding’s identity, at least in part, as a “sport.”
The Smithsonian’s Innoskate program celebrates skateboarding for what it was, what it is, and what it will become. The latest Innoskate was held in London. The threads that ran through this year’s program were architecture, accessibility, and the potential legacy of Olympic inclusion. It seems that this may be a pivotal point in skateboarding where new definitions and new ideas are developed. Being that skateboarding has strong countercultural roots, the conversations that occurred during the London Innoskate program have the potential to shape public perception of art, design, and innovation that is at the core of the sport. Along with the deep dive topics around skateboarding, Innoskate London provided the public a way to explore these topics and immerse themselves in this vibrant culture. There were skate clinics, hands on prototyping activities, ways to explore advanced manufacturing, graffiti art, and touchable examples of skateboarding’s innovative history.
At this year’s event, the Draper Spark!Lab set up a table focused on invention, innovation, and creativity. Participants at our table had the opportunity to create their own fingerboards with 3D printed trucks (designed by Autodesk educators) and plastic wheels. They were encouraged not only to build the boards but to create artwork to define their creations.
We also provided cardboard and other simple materials so that participants could create their own skatepark obstacles and elements—these turned into a mini skatepark. Students from the Bartlett School for Architecture were on hand to help participants further explore skate element creation and skatepark design. The Bartlett School also displayed a graphic of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, to show the site of a skatepark that will soon be built on the grounds. All of this was tied to the legacy of the Olympic park and of skateboarding coming to the Olympics in 2020.
Due in large part to some of those involved in the program, we also saw a great deal of exploration regarding accessibility in skateboarding. Some of those on hand were Oscar Loreto Jr., Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham, and Dan Mancina. Each one of these guys spent time chatting and skating with event participants. It was so inspiring to see kids at our station creating skate ramps for wheelchair users. We also had collaborators from Ultimaker on hand who connected with Wheelz and Oscar to explore ways that 3D printing might provide outlets and tools to further their passion for skateboarding.
The connections made were amazing. Participants shared tips with each other on ramp building, adults and kids met some of their skating heroes, and programs that use skating as an education connection were supported. Our Spark!Lab team met future interns and made long-lasting partnerships with some fantastic organizations for future programs in London and beyond.
Innoskate is more than a program about skateboarding; it is a legacy building experience. Through the talented leaders that make this program happen, long-term impacts are made. Even though each event has had its own flavor and character, this is also true for skateboarding in general. Even with the differences, there is a common thread of a culture that is all about taking risks, trying new things, and being willing to overcome sometimes painful failure. This type of thinking is at the core of innovation and invention.