I’ve often heard and read that innovation is either an ‘art’ or a ‘science’, but it seems we always struggle to combine them. Why is that?

I finished a recent article, The long and winding road we travel in the name of innovation with this insight:

“The art of innovation needs to be broken out of the science that needs to be applied, and then knowing its entire component parts then recombined in sustaining, thoughtful ways. We do need to harness the energy of innovation and we are not yet fully achieving that”.

Let’s look at the past, when art and science were one
The development of preparation and properties of different materials went hand-in-hand with the development of the art of painting, pottery, and metal-working in the nineteenth century. In his paper “Science and Art: Separated by a Common Language”, Jonathan Ashley-Smith does a far more extensive job of reflecting on this period, but this is my ‘potted’ summary as my contribution.

This was the time of the ‘renaissance man’ where you sought out knowledge on the latest scientific discovery or the ones on art or exploration. We wanted to combine our knowledge. The nineteenth century was the time of wondrous discoveries; they needed to be pursued by all enquiring minds. 

It was later in that century we began to separate more than integrate, and this specialisation became fashionable. Schools and universities began to separate art and science to make it extremely difficult to study both simultaneously. Science became governed by organisation and rules, while art allowed freedom of expression and to act more intuitively. The separation continued to be reinforced well into the twentieth century.

Science demonstrated truths and observable facts, and it was systematically classified and projected out that discovering new truths (or new innovations) was clearly essential to society. Therefore, we needed to strengthen and reinforce science education. Art became intensely personal, reflecting the ideas of the originator and the interpreter. It was not the same irreversible force that science was becoming. Science was for forging new paths, for generating wealth, and for forming new industries. As a result, art began to take the back seat. We have had to wait until design became fashionable to ‘allow’ it back into the business, less at arm’s length, late in this last century.

Specialisation was established in both the art and science field, and over time, became ‘culturally’ separated. We made choices on which served our needs and business clearly chose science. We all could have mutual comprehension and appreciation, that was understood but the two sides were separated even further. This remained throughout the twentieth century, although each side grappled and often wanted to embrace the other, it struggled to find the real means to re-combine and achieve this, with some notable exceptions.

Art and Science are the bookends for innovation

I was reading an article about the great disconnects between art and science by Kristi Charish, and I loved the way she explained her thoughts: “Art leads to scientific innovation and science inspires art. Like a pair of bookends, they work best in tandem and change the way we view the world. Without one you can’t have the other and there is a lot to celebrate in that!”

So have we fast-forwarded so much?
I think we still see art and science operating in different worlds, in different compartments and they often don’t combine as we would like. Yet she is right. Art and science do prop up innovation, but we need to stop using them as the ‘bookends’, and instead bring them into the middle, combining them until they are fused as one. The very best discoveries happen when we combine art and science in today’s world.

It is these fusion points of art, design, engineering, and science coming together and coalescing that are giving us great innovation. Art and design provide innovation with analogies and compelling stories, alternative structures, inspiring techniques, challenging methods and knowledge to push our boundaries and our minds. It inspires us to then often push science, technology and engineering more and more to translate this. 

Just think of architecture of great buildings, pushing the boundaries of function and design with availability, or the technology and design of the iPad or iPhone that pushed those boundaries of the accepted and changed the norm for measuring the future.

Divergence and convergence
I use this divergence and convergence approach quite often. We build far too much on convergence, without exploring divergence as much as we should. We promote convergence so we can execute things efficiently and effectively, and we are rewarded by what we have completed. Yet the ‘art’ of divergence plays an equal role in innovation. John Maeda, of the Rhode Island School of Design,  offered a good take on differences that I explain below. 

Artists and designers are divergent thinkers, and this will make many uncomfortable, especially those schooled in business and facts. These types of thinkers are impatient with achieving results but always expect tangible positions. They will struggle with intangibles or theory. Artists and designers expand our horizons of possibilities and can make us ‘connect’ far more, if we are prepared to let go and see the alternatives.

It is this divergence of designers and artists combining with our convergences of science and engineering that allow us to ‘find’ exceptional innovation combining all the disciplines or parts. Art and design provides space for the factual-minded to explore the realms of the impossible. 

Innovation always comes from a starting point of questioning. Art allows more for intuition and moving away from working in known rules. Modern art and modern physics have been combining those multiple perspectives in order to shift their thinking.

So we need to rebuild and recombine

Specialisation has a place, but has it been pushed too far? Often we hear that the world is complex, or that issues cannot be resolved by our best minds. Well, we need a new way to create change, based on total knowledge. Piero Scaruffi offered his view in a talk titled, “Bridging the gap between Art and Science” at a conference in San Francisco in 2007.

He remarked that “[the] digital age is providing us the opportunity to rebuild the continuum …has enabled an unprecedented degree of exchange, interaction, integration, convergence and blending.” 

Scaruffi suggests we are able to move out of the discrete spaces we have found ourselves in, and recombine knowledge in new ways. He argues we live in a context-specific world that is based increasingly on knowledge-specific society, very different from the last time art and science came together in society. Perhaps we are about to arrive at the age of the “rinascimento l’innovazione”, the innovation renaissance period.

Why can Art and Science combine?

All of what we do as humans is a starting point for innovation; all innovation is linked to experiences and questioning. Every human activity is, to some degree, an art. The problem we always face is that dogma rules, and in the case of science and art, our default mindset is to keep separating, whereas we should be combining in new and novel ways. We have built up stereotypes and prejudices that need challenging. Science chases progress, while art really does not. Instead, art looks to make change and it does this from evolving multiple perspectives. 

Sometimes, science is often constrained by a far too linear approach and this needs somehow changing where we need to think in less rigid, structured ways today. We are demanding, no, expecting, more in the future. Art and Science agree they are both forms of exploration, one explores the imaginary more and then this challenges and pushes the scientific and engineers to find the answers. They both change our reality and innovation should always be pushing our expectations that little bit more.

Perhaps the ‘combining’ definition lies here?
In her paper “Art-Science Connections: An investigation of creative innovation” Amy Kelly offered an all-encompassing definition of art and science that also helped me understand why art and science can be combined:

“He then gave me his idea for a definition that both confirmed my original hunch and contradicted my original hypothesis, that art and science are essentially the same. He said that there is ‘art’ and there is ‘science’ in the disciplines of both art and science. ‘Science’ can be thought of as the mastery of concepts and skills; it is what stems from a strong sense of commitment during times of little inspiration. 

Science is learning the rules, techniques, and methods of the activity a person is engaged in. ‘Art,’ on the other hand, happens after mastery of the science. It manifests itself when a person inserts his or her own creative will into the process, or ‘breaks the rules’ in some way, allowing one to exceed normal limitations. 

Art occurs when a person realises that he can indeed bend rules in order to see things in a different light. Often, this may follow one’s entry into “the zone” which facilitates the creation of new, unique ideas. Art isn’t science or vice versa. Art transcends science. When looking at art and science in this way, it is easy to understand that all scientists are not artists.”

“The art of innovation needs to be broken out of the science that needs to be applied”.
We return to my statement that needs explaining. Both art and science are integral, and when they combine, they can help us understand the world we have and the possibilities we can aspire to. We need both order and insight, and it is these two bookends that when we bring them together,  that we can create awe-inspiring and wonderful moments that transform our lives. To quote Piero Scaruffi again: “Art and science cause a fundamental change in the nature of reality itself.

Embracing both art and science together will enable us to move from evolution to revolution. We need to meet some difficult challenges that cannot be incremental, but far more radical in their solutions and this requires cross disciplines to come together. 

Let’s seek out growing ‘mutual comprehension’ and harness the power of art and design, science and engineering, and stop talking about them separately.