The technology and design guru argues that for invention to occur, scientists must embrace the art world
graphic designer and computer scientist, known for his work on the online computer game Second Life, as well as the author of bestselling self-help book The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda has made great use of dual educations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and art school. Drawing from his experiences in these two disciplines, the 44-year-old has come to believe that too stark a distinction is drawn between science and the arts. It is Maeda’s conviction that scientists need art and artists in their professional lives in order to invent and innovate successfully, and with a particular focus on education he has toured the world to promote the idea that government-approved “Stem” subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) should be widened to include art; “turning Stem into Steam,” as he puts it. This week Maeda, who is president of the Rhode Island School of Design, will expound on these ideas at an experimental installation at London’s Riflemaker gallery, where he will “dispense wisdom from a sandpit”. See Riflemaker.org for more on this eccentric project.
Why does science need artists?
We seem to forget that innovation doesn’t just come from equations or new kinds of chemicals, it comes from a human place. Innovation in the sciences is always linked in some way, either directly or indirectly, to a human experience. And human experiences happen through engaging with the arts – listening to music, say, or seeing a piece of art.
So to help them become more humanist, you’d parachute artists and musicians into laboratories?
Which already happens to some degree with artist-in-residence programmes in scientific labs. They’re usually very small, but these programmes are seen as quite desirable by scientists. Because all scientists are humans, and they are humanists inside, and by bringing that part out, innovation happens more naturally.
Can you think of an example where an injection of the arts has helped the sciences?
I recently saw something in Time magazine, a famous Nobel laureate chemist making molecular models out of clay. It shows how these more fluid, abstract materials traditionally belonging to the artist lend themselves better to ways of thinking about the world, as opposed to some kind of ball-and-stick model that shows a constrained view. Art helps you see things in a less constrained space. Our economy is built upon convergent thinkers, people that execute things, get them done. But artists and designers are divergent thinkers: they expand the horizon of possibilities. Superior innovation comes from bringing divergents (the artists and designers) and convergents (science and engineering) together.
Look at Apple’s iPod. A perfect example of technology – an MP3 player – that existed for a long time but that nobody ever wanted, until design made it something desirable, useful, integrated into your lifestyle. Look at the success of Mint.com [a colourful money-management website] which has recently been sold. It’s an app in which 80% of the experience is what you see, how you touch it. Not the technology. I’m also interested in how art and design links into leadership. Because leaders now are facing a very chaotic landscape, things are no longer black and white, things are harder to predict. What better mindset to adopt than the artist’s, who is very used to living in an ambiguous space? Real innovation doesn’t just come from technology, it comes from places like art and design.
George Osborne recently announced protection in the higher-education cuts for the so-called Stem subjects, but not the arts. Is this blinkered?
You know, it’s easy for politicians to look at the measurability of a science and maths education. I mean, fill out 100 questions, you get 100 right or 50 right or zero right, it’s easy to measure. There’s no test that can give you a score from zero to 100 on the question, “Is this student a good writer?” And society’s so focused on measurement. It’s awkward and sad. Singapore or Japan are highly known test-taking countries focused on science and engineering, yet are desperate to find innovation. And where are they looking? They’re looking to the west for new ideas. It’s kind of like a dog chasing after its tail a little bit – this weeding out of the idea that expression, something that exists in the intuition space, can matter. I mean, it’s ironic that the people who talk about these kind of things [cuts to the arts] are all counting on things to carry their message – like images, the written word – as givens.
Do you think that scientists tend to lack humanity?
Scientists would say otherwise. But scientists strive to be pure, to live in what’s called a “concept space”. And by doing so they tend to move away from the core humanist principles that actually put those two arms and legs on them in the first place. The best scientists that I’ve met are those that are humanists and scientists at the same time.
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