Engineering uses science to solve problems, which inherently requires a certain degree of creativity. This creative problem-solving has been the inspiration for my 2019-2020 (and now 2020-2021) IEEE-USA Engineering and Diplomacy Fellowship at the U.S. Department of State, where I serve as the creative director of The Innovation Station from the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary. Upon arrival in October 2019, I was given the opportunity to develop outreach and engagement projects catalyzing the ability of science, technology, and innovation to address global challenges.
That is why the The Innovation Station was launched in the summer of 2020, inspired, in part, by the extreme creativity and resilience exhibited by communities around the world during a public health crisis. The Innovation Station is a robust platform that connects domestic and international communities to turn their shared challenges into shared opportunities. Our first initiative saw me building deep relationships with communities as I coordinated a series of on-the-ground programs.
Throughout 2020, this Innovation Station program series took us—virtually, of course—to Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Utah. In these locations, we connected communities grappling with challenges in business, digital empowerment, education, mobility, rural development, water management, and more with analogous communities—and their innovators—in 18 countries and 30 U.S. states. Even our U.S. Missions around the world have since created meaningful connections with these innovators to help further their on-the-ground diplomatic goals.
These engagements cultivated new subnational relationships while spurring further innovation, promoting trust in technology, and enhancing domestic and international community development. But these programs also illuminated the importance of helping innovators tell their stories in ways that touch people’s lives and result in implementation of creative ideas. With its ability to improve community understanding, appreciation, and confidence, storytelling is a critical—yet underappreciated—ally of innovation.
This was never more evident than when we engaged with the creative industries during The Innovation Station’s virtual program in the Four Corner states, which have had an important relationship with television and film for decades. Our program introduced us to filmmakers who routinely give life to technologies and innovations in the same way that their colleagues tell the stories of communities. Intrigued, we were determined to elevate this link between innovation and storytelling by creating a second Innovation Station initiative called the Creative Industry Lab.
Since its inception, the Creative Industry Lab has sought to institutionalize engagement with domestic and international creative industries to maximize the cultural-economic diplomacy opportunities they provide. Through conversations with film offices, filmmakers, guilds, festivals, and other industry executives, the Creative Industry Lab has developed numerous access, community, and exhibition projects targeting these economic, cultural, and diplomatic outcomes. Projects range from facilitating storytelling about science and technology to improving access for creative industry professionals.
One example of the latter is a collaboration we have developed with Catalyst, a non-profit organization that improves marketplace access and training for episodic content creators. Our collaboration, which was discussed via fireside chat this past October (see below), will facilitate a sister cities-inspired program to link U.S. and global storytellers while helping them find ways to produce their projects. This effort has already engaged U.S. Missions and on-the-ground creative industry professionals in ten countries, and participating countries and U.S. regional hubs will be announced in early 2021.
The more I engage with the creative industries, the more I find myself motivated by their small community’s large impact on public imagination. That motivation resulted in a third Innovation Station initiative focused on discussing “hot topics” in science, technology, and innovation in publicly accessible ways. This project is the “What’s Up with Science?” blog series published monthly on the State Department’s DipNote platform. The series takes an analogy-driven approach to explaining the technical background of innovations while connecting them to U.S. Government activities.
It is not coincidental that the “What’s Up with Science?” series commonly references movies, television, and other creative content as the backbone of its stories. Communicators describe the importance of relating to their audiences based on shared values. Similarly, movies and television provide a relatable common ground on which to build a foundation of trust—which can lead to trustworthy conversations about things like science. A daunting discussion about nuclear science, for example, can be made less intimidating using Food Network analogies. Nanotechnology becomes more approachable in the context of your favorite Marvel superheroes. If you are unable to wrap your brain around blockchain, allow me to explain with the help of my favorite early-2000s adventure flick, National Treasure.
This blog series has been able to bolster State Department outward-facing discussions about science, technology, and innovation. These discussions are critical for communicating with domestic and global audiences about the incredible work being done at State. In fact, the need for the State Department to play a role in building public confidence in science, technology, and innovation was underscored during a recent public event celebrating the 20th anniversary of my office.
It has been incredible to witness just how motivational innovation can be for communities around the world, a topic I have spoken about during numerous panels and seminars. During diplomatic trips to Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, and Greece throughout my first fellowship year, I was fortunate to meet innovators whose work will touch innumerable sectors while impacting communities across the globe. In the second year of my fellowship (an opportunity for which I am immensely grateful), I am excited to facilitate the expansion of The Innovation Station to reach new communities, spotlight exciting innovations, and deepen engagement with creators.
This year, I learned there are many ways for diplomats to use engineering skills at the U.S. Department of State. Building The Innovation Station was how I chose to use mine.
Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., leads and serves as creative director of The Innovation Station at the U.S. Department of State, where she is the 2019-2021 IEEE-USA Engineering and Diplomacy Fellow. Prior to joining the State Department, Dr. Paris contributed to research on carbon dioxide electrocatalysis, water security implications of coal-fired power plants, and the future of U.S. nuclear energy. Her passion for science communication and public diplomacy stems from writing and executive producing various podcasts. Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University (2019), M.A. in Chemistry from Princeton University (2017), and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology, with a minor in French, from Ursinus College (2015).