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Navigating the ‘Nexus’ of Art, Technology, and Science

Dean Julio M. Ottino and Bruce Mau discussed their new book

Northwestern Engineering Dean Julio M. Ottino succinctly summarized the goal of the new book he wrote with Bruce Mau

“The ultimate objective is to inspire,” Ottino said. 

During a fireside chat held virtually on March 10, Ottino and Mau discussed The Nexus: The New Convergence of Art, Technology, and Science; Augmented Thinking for a Complex World (MIT Press, 2022). The authors shared their thoughts and ideas that led them to write the book, which offers a guide for navigating the intersections of art, technology, and science. The event was moderated by Vijay Vaitheeswaran, global energy and climate innovation editor of The Economist and distinguished visiting fellow at the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

That ethos of looking at the world with different perspectives is a driving force behind the whole-brain engineering method employed at the McCormick School of Engineering. Students are trained to integrate the elements of left-brain thinking — analysis, logic, synthesis, and math — with the kind of right-brain thinking that fosters intuition, metaphorical thought, and creative problem solving. To lead effectively, one must master both.

And in today’s challenging world, it’s important to be able to hold conflicting viewpoints. As Ottino said, “Nexus thinking is about different ways to see the world.”

Julio M. Ottino

“The message that we’re trying to convey with the book is that we acquire education basically to try to equip ourselves with one pair of glasses,” Ottino said. “What we are asking here is what if you purposefully can try to add another pair of glasses? The thinking space will increase, the possibility of creating solutions will increase, but at the same time you have to master complexity to operate in this world of ours.”

One of the world’s most renowned designers, Mau is a distinguished fellow at Northwestern Engineering’s Segal Design Institute and cofounder and CEO of Massive Change Network.

Mau has collaborated with global brands and companies, leading organizations, heads of state, and esteemed artists during his 30-year career working in design innovation. As the co-founder and CEO at Massive Change Network, a holistic design collective based in Chicago, Mau leads the organization’s enterprise design, dynamic branding, and strategic publishing initiatives with companies across industries.

Mau, who lives across the street from Ottino, echoed what his neighbor said about the book’s goals. He said inspiration is the key that unlocks possibility.

“We’ve never lived in a better time in human history,” Mau said. “Even with the madness of the current situation, this is the best time in human history to be alive. The possibilities are really unlimited, and when you bring these worlds together, the possibilities expand exponentially. We really hope to show people what the possibilities are and inspire them to go in there.

“I think you can do that. You can’t make someone curious, but if they are, we can open the door.”

Bruce Mau

The speakers referred to the importance of “context,” which frames the challenges and needs for contemporary thinkers and creators. Mau said that, over the last 70 years, design practice has been reduced to a singular entity that can be taken out of context and seen as a falsely singular object. Designers then formulate a solution that wraps around the problem at hand and put the object back into context.”

The Nexus thinking, Mau explained, is to try to understand the complex context of that problem and see the system, not the object, as the design goal and view it holistically. Both Ottino and Mau agreed this idea is key for everybody.

“I don’t think any of this is reserved for people who are super-geniuses,” Ottino said. “The idea is, based on what you are, if we can make you curious as to how other parts work and how they intersect. I will be really happy just increasing the aperture of your glasses a little bit.”