There is a lot of lip-service given these days to the importance of innovation in our society. You often hear that we live in an “innovation economy,” or that we can innovate our way out of a crisisâ€” implying that innovation is something that spontaneously happens with little or no effort. True innovation rarely comes so simply. It is most often the result of the intersecting of two or more seemingly separate and often disparate ideas (you got your chocolate in my peanut butter). We may be banking our future on innovation, but our educational system is not set up around innovation. No, you can’t teach innovation, but you can foster an environment of innovation while learning. Instead, disciplines are taught in independent silos called “classes” with little or no overlap.
David Edwards wants to change that. In his recent book The Lab, David explores the frontiers of learning to promote the theory that innovation comes when we worry less about the scientific “disciplines” involved and more about the desired outcome. In other words, figure out what you need to do and then what scientific tools you need to bring to bear on the problem to solve it.
David has a history of combining art and science in new ways both as a teacher at Harvard University and as founder and director of Le Laboratoire in Paris, France. For example, one of the most striking examples he gives is how he and a class of his solved the problem of being able to quickly and cleanly transport water for people in areas without running water. To create the device â€” called “The Pumpkin” â€” David and his students at Harvard combined biology and engineering to create a device inspired by the way in which living cells transport water.
A few other of his innovations include:
- La Whaf â€” A way of “eating” by inhaling liquid droplets
- La Whif â€” Breathable chocolate, coffee, and even vitamins.
- Andrea â€” A system that uses plants to clean indoor air.
I had a chance to talk with David through email and ask him about education, art, science, and raising kids.
GeekDad: Science and art â€” like science and religion â€” are popularly shown as being at odds and incompatibleâ€” truth can’t be beautiful â€” but in your book, The Lab, you argue that laboratories have to erase “conventional boundaries between art and science.” Why are those boundaries a problem?
David Edwards: Obviously we value a work of art, a MET performance of The Nose of Shostakovich, very differently than we value a work of science, like the discovery of the latest Mersenne Prime, as valuable works of the human mind art and science appeal for different reasons. What interests me in the context of laboratories, a general term I give to environments that “curate” the creative process, is less, however, the “works” of art and science than the creative processes by which we get them, the one being aesthetic, comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, guided by images, true in that it is inalienable in some way from the human condition â€” the other being scientific, analytical, guided by equations, able to simplify a complex world to problems that can be solved, true in that it is reproducible.
GD: What would a world be like where the boundaries did not exist?
DE: These two processes, “art” in the sense that we imagine how Beethoven “lived” and thought and “science” in the sense that we imagine how Einstein “lived” and thought, actually merge in the creative process, and that fascinates me. In the process of discovery, whether with purely artistic, scientific, or some other ends, discoverers â€” how I think of creators â€” dream, and analyze, induce and deduce, are comfortable with uncertainty and are capable of reducing a complex world to resolvable problems and meaningful solutions. Creative lives are like this.
GD: So, what’s happening to the creatives in our society?
DE: With the specialization of knowledge, we now teach, learn, and perform within environments that are specialized to promote dreaming, or to promote analysis, or to promote questioning, or to promote solutions, but these environments are murderous to creative thought, a good reason why the most creative minds often flee institutional environments.
GD: Is the Internet helping to dissolve these boundaries?
DE: Perhaps largely as a result of the Internet Revolution, the “information providing” value of institutions has suddenly been overrun by the “innovation providing” value of institutions. And our institutions remain too focused on the old value model. The boundaries between art and science, as processes of creative thought, become a major obstacle to institutions and society adapting to the conditions of the 21st century. Remove these barriers and the anxiety many now feel facing a future that is so full of uncertainty will be replaced by the freedom a creator feels in a world where dreams can matter.
GD: How long do you think it will take our current mindset about creativity to change?
DE: I think it is indeed a transition that is taking place with the generation that is growing up today. We look at the young today and are shocked by what often seems to be an attention deficit problem. One thing however that strikes me in teaching at Harvard University is how young people, who have grown up surfing the Internet, moving in a matter of seconds from “recombinant RNA” to “Jackson Pollack,” don’t feel the same knowledge restrictions previous generations grew up with, actually recognize, experimentally, the great value of leaping from one culture to the next, feeling your way forward in innocence, discovering.
GD: Many seem to despair a culture where the novice and uninformed have the same access to many-to-many communication as the professional and studied. Do you see this as a problem, and how do you think we are dealing with it?
DE: I actually think that in the world we live in today we find the sources of information, the communities, which suit us, and, yes, I do agree that disastrously uninformed souls can influence millions, billions probably, but I’m not sure that the elite, the most educated and informed, ever had much more influence on human affairs than they do today. What has really changed is that we all, as individuals, have tremendously more outreach than we did. What we say – and do – is amplified. But the elite have always dialogued with the elite. What to do? Making innocence an asset, as it is for an infant, who learns so quickly, may be a goal, and guiding the elite toward more creating, along with the observing, might be another. I keep coming back to the contemporary power of the creative mind.
GD: For some, inventing new ways to carry water may seem like re-inventing the wheel, but you led a class that did just that over nachos and salsa at the Border CafÃ© in Harvard Square (I have to admit, I always found their Margaritas to be an excellent creative lubricant when I visited Boston). How did you bring science and design together to build a better, safer way to move water around?
DE: Getting drinkable water from its source to those in need of it without wasting it is a growing problem, of course. In biology the canonical transporter of water is the biological cell. We thought a few years ago that we might be able to learn from the cell to carry water more efficiently. This led eventually to an object that we’re making right now called The Pumpkin, because it sort of resembles a pumpkin when it is all curled up. The Pumpkin is, in one form, an interesting hand bag that doubles as a thermos. You can pull your lunch out of it like you can drink from it. But it also can expand in size, and carry increasing volumes of water, so that you can carry 10 or more liters of water strapped around your shoulder, or around your neck and torso. In developing world environments or disaster relief situations where water transport is a major challenge and head transport often occurs, The Pumpkin is designed to get lots of water safely to where it needs to go without messing up the neck and spinal cord, without making you drag something over tough terrain. Anyway the biological cell is a little like this â€” a lunch box that expands to carry lots of water or a little, depending on what you need.
GD: How have you been able to apply your own view of creativity to raising your children? Do you ever experiment ideas on them?
DE: My children â€” and I talk about them in my book â€” teach me more about creativity than I do them, I’m sure. If anything I may feel more peace than some in watching my three little boys learn in the rough and tumble way they learn. Yes, they were the first kids in the world who “whiffed” chocolate, the first kids probably who “ate bottles.” Since they are growing up in a very formal French school, I suppose having the father who comes home with Le Whif has marked them especially, hopefully an immunization against the worst outcome of a very fine if rigid educational system.