I’m fascinated by the world of design – when you work in innovation, I believe that it’s a crucial discipline to understand on some level. Good design combines the best parts of the scientific and creative mindset, inventing the practical by understanding the theoretical. It’s about making new things that do their job well – also a pretty good definition of innovation.
One contemporary designer worth investigating is Neri Oxman, an American-Israeli professor at the MIT Media Lab, where she leads the Mediated Matter research group. She is known for art and architecture that combine design, biology, computing, and materials engineering. Her work includes radical designs that use natural and organic building blocks, such as training silkworms to spin particular structures, or lab-grown artificial seashells and coral.
The Media Lab is a fascinating place; a mixed-discipline research laboratory that has gained a reputation for being a hotbed of innovative genius and outside of the box thinking. The Media Lab’s projects tend to cover various forms of interaction between humans and technology – from bionics to artificial intelligence.
Even if you’ve never heard of the Media Lab, you’ll almost certainly have heard of the things invented there, and you’ve probably used at least one of them:
- Mercury RFID readers used in contactless payment technology
- Electronic ink used in e-reader devices
- Audio compression techniques used to create .mp4 files
- Gaming peripherals used in titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band
Aside from having lots of the best engineers and scientists in the world at their disposal, one reason for the Lab’s huge innovation footprint is their methodology, which places these academics alongside designers and creatives like Oxman. They believe in encouraging a cycle that includes several different disciplines:
- Science helps us to interpret information and turn it into knowledge – observing data and telling us what it means
- Engineering starts with knowledge and turns it into utility – a practical use for natural phenomena
- Design takes this utility and encourages cultural behaviour – shaping the dynamics that happen between people and their environment
- Art examines cultural behaviour and responds to it – questioning why we do things the way that we do and creating new information
The Media Lab was designed to follow this principle – it was founded as an experiment in putting studios for designers and artists alongside labs for scientists and engineers. This lets the cycle of innovation happen more quickly and produce more iterations of ideas. It also encourages each group to learn more about the others around them.
If you’re particularly comfortable with one of these four disciplines and aren’t confident in another, it can be very hard to appreciate what everyone else is doing and why it’s valuable. It can also blind you to the potential of an idea. A scientist who focuses on understanding a theory might not see how people are going to apply their research, and a designer who focuses solely on giving something cultural capital might not see the effects it will have on the world.
We all participate in this cycle all the time, in different roles. Some of us favour a particular role and become proficient in it, sometimes we switch from one mode into another depending on the situation. But it’s good to be conscious of what part we’re playing, whether we’re in the right mindset to play that part, and where to hand an idea when you’ve taken it as far as you’re able to.
Innovation is a process, not just an idea. If you want to learn more about how to embed innovation throughout your business and create the right environment to get ahead of the competition, we’ve got just the programme for you. Sussex Pioneers is our new premium TV series, giving you a free crash course in the theory and practice of innovation, from idea to execution.