GORHAM, Maine — It’s easy to see why imagination is so important to Cynthia Thompson’s business: Her artists and designers must constantly conceive of new architectural fabric sculptures, her craftsmen and technicians must transform their ideas into reality.
Transformit’s business is art and, as Thompson says, they put art into business.
From massive, collapsible fabric-structures for trade show booths to permanent installations at places like the VIP boxes at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, the lobby of the Gracie Theatre at Husson University and the new elementary school in Brewer, Transformit’s cutting-edge art-as-product is globally known.
Thompson employs 30 people, and each of them must have that key skill — imagination.
“I can’t hire anybody here who can’t imagine what to do with a blank space — or a problem,” said Thompson.
It’s a quality that’s needed in businesses beyond the obviously artistic — imagination begets innovation, and innovation is what traditionally has driven the U.S. economy.
“Research and development for any company going — I don’t care what it is — needs imagination,” she said. “Everyone wants America to be powerful, the key is innovation.”
The question of imagination and how it fits into today’s workplace — from software firms to real estate brokerages — is the topic of an event being held in June at the University of Southern Maine. “From Imagination to Innovation: Maine Participates in the Lincoln Center Institute’s Imagination Conversation,” is set to be one of 50 such conversations that will be held in each state.
USM and the Maine Center for Creativity are presenting the event, which had been postponed to June from next week, with collaborators including the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, the Maine Arts Commission, the Creative Portland Corp., the Farnsworth Art Museum, the Maine Department of Education, Wright Express, the Maine Alliance for Arts Education, the Maine Humanities Council and Maine Public Broadcasting.
One of the things CEOs are looking for are employees with creativity and imagination, who can look at things differently, said Jeanne Maginnis, executive director of the Maine Center for Creativity. And it’s important not only to recognize the importance of imagination in the work force, but to talk about the need to foster that quality in our schools and colleges, up through the workplace, she said. Doing that places a value on imagination, she said.
“It’s sort of the beginning of it all. You have to be able to conceive of something that hasn’t been conceived of before in order to create and to innovate,” said Maginnis.
“If we’re not talking about imagination in education and the workplace and our lives, then we’re not talking about one of the most basic skills you need to have in order to rejuvenate our economy, rejuvenate our schools and, frankly, have more fun in our lives.”
The event will look at how imagination works in various fields, how its cultivated and sustained and how it can be fostered in Maine. It includes speakers such as University of Maine professor Habib Dagher, Aaron Frederick, entrepreneur and a founder of Rippleffect, and Eric Hopkins, a North Haven painter.
Hopkins noted that Maine has been innovating since people were first here, figuring out how to work the land and tap trees for syrup. It continued on through the centuries; Maine limestone is the glue that holds together the mortar of Boston and New York, and the Brooklyn Bridge is strong with Vinalhaven granite.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time — there’s nothing new about creation and innovation and success,” said Hopkins.
That continues today, with work at places like The Jackson Laboratory, said Hopkins, and at other businesses less obvious.
“A banker can be as creative as a painter or a farmer,” said Hopkins. “But we’ve got to talk to each other, work with each other.”
For years, argues Thompson, society has placed less value on the creative.
“Now we’re in a puddle,” she said.
Similarly, Maginnis noted the dichotomy of innovation. On one hand, we admire and honor people who innovate and really break through. But on the other, hand, she said, we often look askance at the efforts until they are successful.
Maine can be sort of a laboratory, said Maginnis, It’s a small enough population where people know each other, and there is a high percentage of artists, writers and performers.
“If we begin to weave together our talents here in Maine, and appropriately understand how the skills and arts come together, I think we can really innovate in a big way,” she said. “The creator’s eye is often unique and brings a different perspective. Sometimes if you just put that lens on some business dilemma, that new lens can suddenly turn things around.”
Wright Express Corp. in South Portland may appear to be a fairly straightforward numbers business, providing fleet management services worldwide. But when it first began, the idea of capturing transaction information at gas stations was a major innovation, said CEO and Chairman Michael Dubyak. And the company’s Master Card program, launched in 2000, puts Wright Express in a leadership position in online travel, providing service to Priceline, Orbitz, Expedia and other hotel programs.
“We innovated something that gives them more efficiency in the marketplace,” said Dubyak. “That’s how people build value, how you really find new space.”
Wright Express’ senior managers have been through innovation workshops led by Doug Hall, UMaine graduate and entrepreneur-inventor. The idea is for the company to innovate continually, let people have a voice, said Dubyak, and not fear trying new things — “fail fast, fail cheap.”
By having a culture where the company establishes integrity and the workers trust they have a voice, imagination and innovation is bred, said Dubyak.
Imagination can’t be taught, agreed Thompson, but it can be nurtured. Employees must be put in circumstances where they are forced to use their imagination, over and over again. And they must feel safe in doing so, in being able to speak about ideas, even ideas company owners don’t necessarily agree with, she said.
She suggested that companies look to holistic ways to run the business. It’s only with creativity that a company can evolve and continue to make money — but the business must pay attention to the bottom line, or the company’s done, she said.
Hopkins said he thought the June event may be the start of something in Maine — or at least the rekindling of something.
“This is kind of like a pilot light — you just have it on, then turn the gas on and you can be cooking,” said Hopkins. “This is sort of a pilot light we’ve been waiting for, for a while.”
The U.S. has always had the advantage of being the innovator, always presenting the next best thing, said Dubyak.
“If we’re going to try to build businesses in the region that have sustainability, that are able to grow work forces, they’re going to have to find ways to be innovative,” he said.