The Report

To innovate, scientists and engineers find inspiration in the arts

Posting in Design

In the innovation field, a rebirth of Renaissance thinking is brewing. Scientists and engineers are engaging with the arts to think creatively--an evident trend at the recent PopTech conference.

PopTech Science Fellow Leila Takayama describing a robot created with Doug Dooley, a Pixar animator

CAMDEN, ME -- "Good science and good art are the same," David Eagleman, a neuroscientist with a near rock-star following, said in a booming, enthusiastic voice as he sipped a decaf soy latte in the late afternoon.

Eagleman, dressed in trim black jeans and a dark T-shirt, and I were sitting in a cozy cafe on one of the main commercial streets in the small coastal town in Maine where the PopTech conference takes place annually. This year's event, which was held from October 17-20, is a hip yet laid-back annual gathering of academics, scientists, corporate leaders, and cultural figures who share a goal of improving human conditions around the world. And nowhere was it more evident that many of the nation's sharpest thinkers in the fields of science and engineering -- like Eagleman -- are turning to art for inspiration as they seek to innovate.

"Science and art are both creative processes where you make leaps and have some way of filtering them," Eagleman said. "A good creative person, scientist or artist, generates lots of ideas and has the capacity to throw a lot of them out."

Throughout PopTech, numerous speakers working in traditionally "left-brain" fields, such as neuroscience and robotics, revealed evidence of crossing over into right-brain territory to enhance their methods of finding and refining fresh ideas.

Onstage, Leila Takayama, a research scientist with Willow Garage, a Menlo Park, CA-based maker of personal robots, discussed how the company collaborates with PIxar animator Doug Dooley to infuse lifelike qualities into machines. Jay Silver, a Maker-in-Residence at Intel and a creator of Makey Makey, a simple invention kit, shared how the sculptures of artist Andy Goldsworthy has affected his work and ideas. In the introduction to Eagleman's presentation on the potential impact of brain research on the legal system, PopTech's curator and executive director Andrew Zolli highlighted Eagleman's creative writing success, urging the audience to read the neuroscientist's fiction best-seller Sum.

In a workshop on creating compelling data visualizations, the New York Times' artist-in-residence, Jer Thorp, encouraged attendees to simply "hire an artist if you have a novel problem." That's because "Artists are trained to face novel problems," Thorp said. And then he added, "Software engineers are not." And to formalize the current wave of such cross-disciplinary innovation, the organizers of PopTech unveiled a new fellowship in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation that would mix artists with businesspeople, scientists, and social innovators to "facilitate unconventional collaboration," as its website describes.

SHAKING THINGS UP

Takayama of Willow Garage believes there is a particularly effective way to incorporate artistic thinking into science: invite an artist to become an integral part of a research-and-development process, rather than as an outside observer or as an afterthought. Artists who are deeply involved in the design of a product can offer fresh analyses beyond what more science or data-driven inventors might provide, she told me at PopTech.

"Bringing in an artist can shake things up and question what you're doing in ways that are more critical than what you are doing," Takayama, who is also a PopTech Science Fellow, said brightly as she sipped her morning coffee on a foggy day in Camden. "Scientists will only ask 'where's your data? What are your control conditions?'"

Willow Garage turned to Pixar artist Dooley to help guide the company with design strategies such as programming actions that look like disappointment if a robot can't complete a task. Such details can give a robot a marketplace advantage: it may be easier for consumers to connect with the machine on an emotional level.

Echoing Thorp's workshop comments, Takayama pointed out that it's crucial for companies hoping to learn from artists during the innovation process to have them on staff in some capacity to help create a new product or service early on, rather than merely seek artists' opinions after an invention's release.

"The kinds of critiques that come from artists are better to come from the inside than from the outside, so you can work with them and through them," Takayama said.

A RENAISSANCE OF RENAISSANCE THINKING

Of course, these examples aren't the first forays into combining scientific research and artistic creativity. There's the obvious precedent from the Italian Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci, famous for his painting masterpieces as well as his astonishing flying machine concepts and sketches.

Fast forward to the 20th and 21st centuries, and other examples form a fascinating timeline that illustrate the power of infusing scientific and engineering research with a deep awareness -- and integration -- of art. These include IBM's collaborations with sculptor Isamu Noguchi and designers Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen in the 1950s; the well-known 1960s and 1970s telecommunications projects of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), formed by engineers Billy Kluver and Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman; the opening of the interdisciplinary Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s; and the famed artist-in-residence program at Xerox 's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1990s.

More recently, in the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson published last year, Jobs stated that many of Apple's most talented engineers are accomplished in music or another art form.

What's particularly interesting about the current wave of merging technological and scientific advancement and artistic thinking is that it may be a reaction to the opposite phenomenon: that despite such colorful past examples of well-rounded innovation, engineering and the sciences, in general, may be too specialized. In other words, siloed. To gain a competitive advantage in the lab and in the marketplace, it could be wise to bring in a more polymathic approach that includes exposure to, and engagement in, the arts. Doing so could result in not only more original ideas, but also viable products and services that appeal to consumers on aesthetic and emotional levels. Such an innovation strategy might lead to easier-to-use products, including those for humanitarian purposes such as educational, health-related, or disaster-relief tools.

The idea is also currently reflected in the debates on re-vamping the U.S. educational system to boost the innovation skills of U.S. students. Media artist John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, has spoken at numerous events -- including before Congress -- about the value of incorporating the arts to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) educational initiatives, turning STEM to "STEAM," as Maeda has said.

"Some disciplines have evolved to their own death. Engineering has evolved logically, but not necessarily culturally," Silver of Intel and Makey Makey, who was trained as an electrical engineer, told me at PopTech. "Creativity isn't part of that any more. So we look to where it is; we're desperate for it. We look to art. And it's wonderful, because it's there."

Image: Thatcher Cook for PopTech/Flickr

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure