The world of art and design rarely collides with science, despite that both spheres prize innovation. David Edwards is on a mission to change that. The American scientist and educator is the founder of Artscience Labs, a network of experimental invention hubs including Le Laboratoire in Paris and at Harvard University.
The places operate like a cross between a mad-scientist’s lab, a prototyping studio, a classroom, and a museum, where the fuzzy, intuitive aspects of creating and vetting art pair with the rigors of the scientific method to produce thoroughly fresh ideas. The resulting projects range from the pragmatic (plant-based air purifiers) to downright weird (chocolate you smoke). He details this brave new world in the book The Lab: Creativity and Culture (Harvard University Press, 2010). Here, he talks to Co.Design about the logic of marrying art and science; breathable food; and why commercialism in the lab shouldn’t be a goal unto itself.
Co.Design: How did you get interested in product innovation?
David Edwards: It began about 15 years ago when I started a company when I was an academic. The idea was to design a particle of insulin so that when you breathe it, it actually flowed really easily into your lungs. You could deliver insulin into your lungs by inhalation with a simple device. I designed the particle like a whiffle ball. I couldn’t get any of the federal agencies interested. It was developed with Eli Lilly for diabetes treatment and I published an article in 1997. The company sold in 1999 to Alkermes. Up to that point, I had never done anything entrepreneurial before. When I returned to Harvard, I was convinced I had learned something important. There was something in the process of someone betting on a dream of mine.
What is an artscience lab?
Artscience is the general process of creative thought, both analytical and intuitive. The Artscience Lab is a complement to the regular science lab, where we experiment with artistic expression at the frontiers of science, meaning we’re not quite sure where we should go next. Not surpisingly, a lot of work we’ve done comes back to biology, where we’re still trying to understand how the brain works. For an artist’s point of view, it’s intriguing because being on the frontier means being on the cusp of discovering the future and confronting the limits of human knowledge. It’s bringing together experts from different specialized cultures. It’s part of the discovery that happens when you go through a door you’re not supposed to go through, yet the artist or designer and the scientist are using the same language of discovery. There are three types of labs. There’s the educational lab, which emphasizes learning. It’s important that the creators are learning something. Another kind is a cultural lab, so we do experiments based on the cultural richness of it. That means the kinds of ideas that we do are kind of absurd, and far-fetched. And there’s the lab focused on the making, where the benefit is translating ideas into commercial or humanitarian innovation.
What are some examples of these absurd experiments?
Two of these projects we did ended up being commercial products. One was a plant-based filter named Andrea and the other was breathable chocolate called Le Whif. In Andrea, we didn’t really know if it would work. I was interested in doing something with plants. We partnered with French designer Mathieu Lehanneur and explored how to clean air by using plants. We collected data, and it wasn’t designed to be a commercial product, and even today, storeowners didn’t even know where to put it. Is it a vase? Is it a filter? It’s still moving towards comprehension. Even with Le Whif, no one understood why they were breathing chocolate but it was fun. And with students, we brainstormed ideas such as inhaling pepper and salt. In the end we came up with chocolate and we had no idea how it would be accepted. We introduced Le Whif right after the French banned smoking in cafes but at Le Laboratoire people could smoke chocolate. People had fun. The value of what I?m describing is to put forward such an innovative idea that you really couldn’t otherwise justify it in a regular lab.
Why write the book?
I’ll be honest: one of the reasons was to understand the concept myself. The Artscience Labs themselves are experiments. And clearly, the world’s not in great shape. Even though creators are at the heart of the hope for the future, I would like them to have a better dialogue with the general public. And also for them to feel freer to create in an environment that’s less restrictive than found in today’s science lab.
Why does the public need to be involved?
Right now, the way the science lab has evolved is through peer-reviewed publications. At the end of the day, as a specialized scientist, I often know who is reviewing my work because there’s such a limited number of people who even understand what I?m doing. Because I know them already, I?m not usually really surprised as to what they say. And moreover, no one else really knows what’s going on until there’s some outcome. So I don’t get really get broad feedback. And for the public, in a world that’s rapidly changing, society isn’t really involved in the changes going on. And that has all sort of social, political and ecological outcomes. The artscience lab is a way to open up and liberate the creative process.
Is what you’re talking about basically crowd-sourcing?
Cultural exhibition in the classical design lingo — demo or die — is always a good thing for the creator. Clearly, what has happened over the last 15 years, if you look at the most radically successful innovations related to the Internet, there’s been this opportunity to culturally exhibit ideas almost continually (i.e. open source). When the founders were creating Google, they said, “We don’t really know how we’ll make money,” but that wasn’t the main focus. Initially these ideas are far-fetched, but as they evolve through some sort of open sourcing, the ideas reach maturity. There’s a value at each step, even if it ultimately fails. As far as crowd sourcing, we’d have no interest if this were a crowd-sourcing concept. It’s about the absurdity and the autonomy of the cultural exhibition. The more how we define the how-tos of a successful lab, the more we lose the soul of it.
In the book, you say commercialization shouldn’t be the implicit goal from the beginning. Why is that?
If I?m running any lab, and I?m doing important breakthrough work, the quality of the research is compromised if you can’t follow every idea wherever it takes us. It’s true that commercial ideas do come out of experiments. And a fair amount of labs are hoping for it. But for Artscience Labs, the ideas need to remain truly experimental. I believe the environment is immensely richer if there’s not only commercial potential but also the potential for cultural and humanitarian impact.
Do you think now is the most fertile time for these labs to be taking off?
I think these labs have a lot of precedent. I often talk about the Bauhaus, for example, where during the late 19th century industrialization, a lot of activity was happening that made it suitable for creating. Today, given the incredible transversal fluidity of information flow, this way of thinking is a lot more intuitive for the young generations than it has ever been. When my students come in to my class, they’ve grown up where they can go on the Internet from subjects like RNA to William Kentridge in a matter of seconds, and they’re comfortable with that. I think that the autonomy of disciplines is not obvious for this new generation.
What’s next for you?
We are starting up a new food inhaling company in London based on the experience with Le Whif, called ?Breathable Foods” (lewhif.com). There are three opportunities in diet, energy, and vitamin markets. It’s an example of how commercialization can happen through these fluid experiments. It might seem like luck, but it’s much more about people who are listening carefully.