In 1418, the city of Florence held a competition to build a dome over its cathedral. Filippo Brunelleschi’s octagonal dome made history as the first to be built without a temporary supporting frame. It remains the world’s largest brick-and-mortar dome today.
Brunelleschi, however, wasn’t trained as an architect or a builder but as a goldsmith. He also wrote poetry, designed settings for theatrical performances, and led groundbreaking optical and geometrical experiments that led to the development of linear perspective. At 39, he even opened his own school where he taught mathematics, geometry, and art.
The Renaissance was a period of intense crisscrossing during which artists like Brunelleschi worked as engineers and vice versa. Known as “Renaissance Men,” others, like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Leon Battista Alberti, effortlessly bridged painting, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, astronomy, and more, resulting in a dynamic outpouring of intellectual, artistic, and literary activity.
Now a new book argues a similar mentality can be fostered today, except it’s not about a Renaissance man but a “Renaissance team.” The Nexus argues that the complex problems of our generation can be solved only if art, technology, and science converge like they did during the Renaissance.
The Nexus was written by Julio Mario Ottino, a scientific researcher and artist, and Bruce Mau, a celebrated graphic designer whose vast portfolio includes redesigning the holy city of Mecca, rebranding Guatemala, and starting the Massive Change Network, a design consultancy he founded in 2010 with his wife, Bisi Williams. Mau likes to think big, and in this book he wants you to forget about the right- versus left-brain myth and embrace whole-brain thinking.
I recently sat down with Mau, who joined me from his book-filled office in Chicago, to talk about how the idea for The Nexus was born, how modern-day companies and organizations can foster whole-brain thinking, and how important design is to that process.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
My first observation is about the title of the book and the fact that it’s missing the word design. I wonder if that’s because design itself is at the intersection of art, technology, and science?
Yeah, the project, for me, really started when I found this beautiful little magazine [trans | formation]. It was edited by this guy named Harry Holtzman in the 1950s, and he says “transformation affirms that art, science, and technology are interacting components of the total human enterprise. But today they’re too often treated as if they were cultural isolates and mutually antagonistic.”
I read it and I thought, Oh my god, this is exactly what I’m thinking. So that started the conversation and we realized that design is actually the everyday practice that brings those worlds back together.
Did the word design or what it stands for even exist in the Renaissance? Or was it born precisely because we needed a methodology to bring them together when they diverged?
In the Renaissance, it was the practice to be multidimensional, partly because domains themselves were modestly scaled. You could master everything we knew about anatomy, because we didn’t know very much. Whereas today, the prospect of mastering more than one field is not plausible. Even mastering one field is staggeringly challenging, and it’s exponentially increasing. From almost all of history, we knew of not a single other planet in the universe, and now we know of thousands of them.
But quite quickly, especially with the industrial revolution, these [domains] start to drift apart into their own culture and they have increasingly specific and exclusive language, and that has the effect of banishing the outsider. You have to be skilled and trained in the language and the knowledge, and now we have this situation where the knowledge in one domain is often not accessible to the others.
The problems we have are not technology problems, and they’re not science problems, they’re [problems like] climate change. And climate change is not going to be solved by technology and science. We’re going to need art, we’re going to need emotion to understand how to reach people and inspire them to change, talk to them about new possibilities, and show them other worlds. And that’s going to come at the nexus; it’s going to come from people who are able to really work that intersection—and that intersection is the design.
Right. We went centuries solving other problems, but perhaps we’ve reached a critical mass, a moment when it’s no longer enough for these individual practices to work in tandem?
Yes, we now have a new set of what I call success problems. If we’d failed more frequently, we’d have fewer problems. There would only be a billion people on the planet. We took smallpox off the face of the Earth, saving hundreds of millions of lives. But all of those people are now living, they need food, they need shelter.
Now we get to have problems like climate change. We’ve earned a new class of problems that are a higher order of complexity and don’t fit into the classical categories. And you have to bring teams of people. We developed a method we call the Renaissance team: You can’t have a Renaissance person anymore, the idea that I could find a person who could do that is really implausible. But you can have a Renaissance team.
Going back in history, you write about Florence being the embodiment of the nexus at the time. What is it that made Florence such a perfect place for all these minds to converge?
Partly, it was a culture of leadership and competition. You had very intense competition amongst the cities. Back then, if you were a glassmaker in Murano, if you tried to leave, they cut your hands off. They did not want you to show someone how to do it, so leaving with the knowledge was a capital offense.
The patronage of the day was all designed to create excellence and competition and to win against the other cities. So you wanted to get best scientists, the best artists, the best engineers in your town, to beat the other towns. And in the case of Florence, you had the Medici [family]. They had an incredible commitment to art, culture, science—they funded all of the stuff.
So you get this incredible culture, where if you take Galileo out of Florence, he probably doesn’t happen. That’s what a culture of nexus produces. It’s like, if you want to be in technology and you go to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, there are going to be the best technologists from everywhere in the world. You don’t get that out of Poughkeepsie.
But there’s a pretty big flip side to that coin when it comes to Silicon Valley, so how can we re-create Florence without ending up with another Silicon Valley?
If you look around, you will see in America that cities are competing in that way, producing culture, art museums, galleries, art biennials. They’re building a place where people want to be. It’s a war for talent, and cities are competing on that basis.
So you’re saying that Silicon Valley doesn’t have that? Did it lean too much on the technology and not enough on the arts and culture?
It doesn’t have that, I would argue.
The book lays out the benefits of the “nexus” at length, but what’s your vision for how we get there?
I think education is key. Naming it and actually helping people understand that this is a thing is an important step. And giving people a road map and showing them what happens.
I worked with Julio to help launch whole-brain engineering at Northwestern. It’s a very different way of thinking about engineering. When I moved to Chicago, Julio made me a fellow at Northwestern, and I said, “Julio, I don’t know anything about engineering. Shouldn’t I get an engineering degree first?” And he said, “No, no, you don’t need to be like us. We need to be like you.”
It took me a while to understand what he was talking about, but eventually I remember him explaining it. He said, “If I asked a conventional engineer to make a bridge, the question he will ask is How thin can I make it? Efficiency, that’s really what the classical engineer is oriented toward. If I ask you to make a bridge, the question you will ask is, Why do you want a bridge? Maybe a boat would be nicer, maybe we shouldn’t have a bridge.”
We need the “why” question in our practice. Let’s take a step back and say, Why are we doing that? And once you start thinking like that, it’s really a balance between analytics and creativity. And to be great now, you need both of those things, you need left brain and right brain, you need a nexus mind.
So obviously education can be a good platform for this kind of thinking, but I wonder if companies and organizations can play a similar role?
I think they have an opportunity to really bring these worlds together. If you take Apple, and you take the beauty out of Apple, you’re left with a reasonably good tech company that you’ve never heard of and would have no effect on anyone. You put the art, science, and technology together and you have Apple, and it changes the world. The fact that their products say, “designed in California,” that’s a nexus thing to say. It’s not the manufacturing that matters, it’s the creative practice that brought this into being.
So how would you define the state of affairs today? Are we headed for a Renaissance 2.0?
More people are involved in the nexus than ever before. More people have access to the possibility that this promises than anytime in human history. And it allows us to do things that would be unimaginable for most of history. If you think about when COVID happened, within weeks there were over 100 teams from all over the world [working on vaccines]. Scientists, technologists, designers, communicators, brands, investors, all faced the challenge and took that on and tried to solve it, and several succeeded.
That is the new world, and I find it really terrifying that we don’t know about [the potential of the nexus] and that we don’t love it and understand how important it is. When we started the Massive Change Network, we did years of research to really understand what we’re capable of doing now, and how our design capacity has expanded. Through that process we met the people who took smallpox off the face of the Earth; one of the key leaders was a guy named Larry Brilliant.
They vaccinated billions of people to get that result. We know almost nothing about Larry Brilliant and we know everything about Lady Gaga. And Lady Gaga is brilliant but Larry Brilliant is way more brilliant. So I’m doing everything I can to help people see how amazing we really are, and this is what we’re capable of.