Bezos Center for Innovation at MOHAI.

Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Boeing, and this little bookseller called Amazon are all Seattle creations. It’s an astounding resume. The newly open Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry celebrates and explores this extensive legacy of innovation through interactive exhibits, insights from successful innovators, and a continuous invitation to reinvent and transform the world with an original idea.

The Center’s first stretch of wall houses protruding boxes that display Seattle-born innovations. The creations span the gamut from squares for the first down jacket invented by Eddie Bauer to improvements in neon lights and sound wave electric toothbrushes contributed by UW scientists. But there’s also smaller contributions, like the bike polo mallet and the RainGlobe, the weather-appropriate cousin of the snow globe. Amidst these blocks, and a noticeably modest Amazon square of a few books and boxes, is the first instance of the Bezos Center’s forward-thinking inclusiveness; an empty protruding box asking “What’s Next?”

From there guests can enter a cylindrical room bearing images of pioneering Seattleites like Jimi Hendrix. A touch-controlled video screen offers a swirling pool of Seattle innovators and their theories to why the Emerald City is such a fertile breeding ground for ideas. Size is one guess as it would be harder to shake up New York City with your big idea, but Jeff Bezos’s own floating head credits the enormous talent brought here by Microsoft. His theory seems to cap the claim of this room, that innovation begets innovation, and gives the impression that with this deep a talent pool Seattle will never run dry.

A Seattle bias permeates the center even when not explicit. A wall of other famously innovative cities comes after this introduction to Seattle’s own accomplishments, so our city fits right in with the celebration of Athenian art and the tech successes of Bangalore. A glowing interactive game allows players to pick resources and then simulates the success of their speculative business based on their choices and luck. As visitors begin touching the screen, the Center has them playing the pioneer and reminds them of Seattle's distinctive valuable resources with options like rain, natural beauty, and progressive culture.

The most interesting portrayal of innovators is a video that imagines a hypothetical debate between the modern environmentalist Denis Hayes, the president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, and R.H. Thompson the civil engineer responsible for transforming early Seattle’s sewers and roads at the turn of the 20th century. Both discuss the innovations they brought to Seattle, but they come into conflict regarding the straightening and deepening of the Duwamish River. The envisioned Thompson proudly hails this act as a necessity of urban growth, but Hayes chastises it for lack of environmental regulation and warns to consider all the effects of our potential innovations.

After laying this groundwork, the Bezos Center offered an outlet for its inspiration with a Sketch Your Invention contest that ended December 2.  Visitors doodled ideas on a Bezos Center napkin and tweeted the drawings with #innovationMOHAI (which can be used to search for the entries) for their chance to win a provisional one-year patent and $500 towards a Kickstarter campaign. Since the center celebrates such a diverse range of innovation, from Microsoft to the grunge movement to the toy slinky-dog, this contest seemed imminently open to everyone and not just the Bill Gateses of the world. The winner will be announced by the end of the month, and appropriately the Bezos Center plans to hold more innovation-focused public contests in the future.

By the end of the exhibit, the lingering question remains: What is it about Seattle? In a video Costco founder Jeffrey Brotman cites the Boeing bust of the 1970s which left thousands of educated employees out of work and forced to innovate or leave. In an interview from the opening celebration of the center Jeff Bezos ventured that it is the rain, saying it keeps us indoors and allows more time to think. Whatever the answer is, the Bezos Center finds a perfect home in the Museum of History and Industry. It proudly looks back on Seattle’s rich past, yet—like all of those it celebrates—it carves out its own unique place. It continually asks, “What’s next?” and insists that any one of its visitors may have the answer.

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