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Innovation is the sine qua non of our time.

Corporate executives claim their business embodies it, whether it’s about computers or coffee. Politicians love to invoke it. Consultants claim they can imbue it, for a price. Venture capitalists chase it, sometimes blindly. Educators claim to teach it. Coders think artificial intelligence can fake it.

Innovation is easy to define: “a new idea, method, or device.” Everyone knows when something is truly innovative or creative when they see it. And we know that being innovative requires being creative. But far less obvious is the answer to the question: How does innovation happen and how can we organize our thinking or a business to get more of it? Many books have been devoted to that question. Few have been deeply insightful. Even fewer have themselves been novel or creative.

Now comes a new book that constitutes a truly novel and useful exploration of the nature and practice of creativity, The Nexus: Augmented Thinking for a Complex World—The New Convergence of Art, Technology, and Science, written by Julio Ottino with Bruce Mau. Even the table of contents is novel, and instructive.

Before continuing, by way of full disclosure, I know Julio Ottino and I hold a position as a Faculty Fellow at the institution where he’s the dean of the McCormick School of Engineering. So, I’m biased. But the bias emerges from having the pleasure of observing a novel thinker, accomplished educator and engineer, and an unreasonably successful administrator. A book like The Nexus could only be written by someone with that confluence of qualities, amplified in this case by the talents of dean Ottino’s friend and collaborator, Bruce Mau, a force in his own right, an artist and educator and CEO of a design consultancy. 

The two have crafted a visually evocative book. Use of the word “crafted” is deliberate. Unlike most books that are essentially narrative, wherein any images or graphics used are for emphasis, or unlike books that are collections of images, the central theme in The Nexus emerges from the fusion of carefully curated imagines (art, in the broadest sense), its structural organization (the engineered design), and its ideas (the science). This, intentionally, echoes the book’s descriptive subtitle, “the new convergence of art, technology, and science.”

The authors don’t propose that all “breakthroughs” and innovation come from a direct fusion of the three domains. Instead, the point is about how we think in each of those domains. Thus one of the purposes of the book is to combat the fact that “both sides—artists, and scientists/engineers—have a romantic, almost cartoonish view of the other.” The Nexus goes a long way in rectifying that and, as the authors point out, with the purpose to push towards an “augmented perspective, a philosophy of thinking.”

As they also note, and both from direct experience, (Ottino began life in Argentina as an artist before becoming an engineer, then administrator too; Mau has a similar history), each of the domains, art, technology, and science, have their own language, culture, and motivations. A cross-pollination of those elements is, we’re persuaded, where we’ll unlock creativity in whatever the pursuit. Their point is not about some clumsy integration, but of avoiding the “danger in single-lens thinking” and instead “augmenting” one’s perspective.

Any description of the book’s structure can’t do justice to how its design integrates art, words, and insights. You have to hold it in your hands. We share the view that a “book is an art form . . .  Something magical happens in the hands and minds of readers, which is hard to match in the digital domain (at least, so far).” Many of the book’s intriguing and useful insights are accessible for those only inclined to browse, i.e., for those inclined to the proverbial “coffee table” book. But it’s most powerful when read in full.

One finds, for example, the instructive juxtaposition of two seemingly very different ‘maps’. There’s a two-page flowchart of the chronology and structure of “the remarkable string of companies, games, films, generated after the first film in the Star Wars franchise.” Then, elsewhere, there’s a picture of the poster-sized, intricately detailed flowchart of all the known cellular and molecular processes of the human body. Both images (and others) are in service of explaining the nature of networks and the relevance to discovery and creativity. As the authors note, once we “see the world as networks, we find them everywhere,” and by that they mean not just in nature but in everything humans do and build.

Often, perhaps always, networks are complex. Among myriad important observations, dean Ottino reminds us that “the difference between complicated systems and complexity is the same as the difference between engineering systems and biological or social systems, or between performing from a score and jamming.” Or put in illustrative terms, a “Boeing 787 is complicated” and, critically, “complicated systems do not adapt  . . . There is no emergence.” The Nexus illuminates the importance of “emergence” as one of the key and ineluctable features of networks that has direct relevance to fostering creativity.

Given the hyperbole in the news these days about artificial intelligence (AI), you may be wondering if the author thinks algorithms will be the future source of innovation. The Nexus acknowledges the power of AI to “disrupt everything,” but that’s not the same as replacing human ingenuity.  Dean Ottino suggests thinking of AI “as a sort of an idiot savant who can excel in well-defined domains.” While we should expect a “properly augmented AI can help” with learning, Ottino reminds us that AI “at its root is left-brain” and “driven by quantifiable data.” Creativity and innovation emerge from the intersection of left- and right-brain thinking, what Ottino calls “whole brain thinking.”

The challenge in stimulating creativity is, like all things, rooted in whether we have the right paradigm for understanding the creative process. Ottino reminds us of the challenge by analogy: “By understanding a grain of sand” one cannot begin to “understand sand dunes.” Instead, a “complex system must be understood as a whole.” In The Nexus we find such truths put to work to help shift paradigms that are used every day, especially in business, including a reframing of the old aphorism that a well-run business “runs like a clock” to instead of one that’s adaptable and “behaves like an ecosystem.”

The book thus devotes many pages to practical recommendations, from how to organize teams to how to avoid intellectual traps, and how to “design organizations for the emergence of creativity.” While readers of the literature on management practices will recognize some standard concepts, The Nexus pushes us to consider a paradigm shift to manage for creativity. Typical of the many illustrative examples in the book we find an analysis of two seemingly incommensurate fields of innovation, Broadway musicals and science. But both have clear measures of what constitutes innovation and success, and both as it happens have a rich body of data stretching back a century about numbers of people, organizational approaches, time-lines, etc. (You’ll have to read the book to learn what the data show.)

In one of numerous examples of how art informs engineering and vice versa, The Nexus includes a photograph of a kinetic mobile designed and built in the early 1960s by a Polish sculptor. The mobile didn’t just move but, by employing clever software and sensors of that day (the 60s), it dynamically reacted to those viewing it or talking at it. Such capabilities presaged the practical robots that only today engineers are now producing commercially.

Given the role universities play as sources of talent, Ottino suggests we ask if we might think about “a different way to see the landscape of what is covered in universities?” In order to teach for “convergence” and to stimulate “whole brain thinking,” he proposes that instead of universities “largely structured around the classical lines of art, humanities, and sciences,” one might structure around “three broadly defined domains: knowledge, creation, and organization.” The first would include science, history, literature and so forth. The second not only art but also engineering, even though, as Ottino notes, it’s “controversial” to put those two into the same bucket. (We agree; they belong in the same “creation” category.) And, of course the philosophy, history, and structure of organizations, the third category, encompasses much more than what’s usually taught in business schools.

Finally, in another example of the practicality The Nexus seeks, Ottino not only observes but whole-heartedly endorses the fact that “every innovator is a self-promoter.” It is, he asserts, a kind of universal truth: “Self-promotion has mattered since the beginning of time. Galileo was one of the greatest physicists that ever lived. But he was also an astute campaigner who sold his inventions  . . .  The list of famous creative people who were inveterate self-promoters is long. Michelangelo, Freud, and Walt Whitman were notorious self-promoters.” In that spirit, for an excellent example of lucid self-promotion of an idea at the intersection of a product (The Nexus), a medium (video), and a platform (the cloud), visit the book’s Amazon webpage, click on the video of Julio Ottino.

A core claim in The Nexus is that art, technology, and science were, long ago unified and while they “separated after the Renaissance [they] are now converging again.” The Nexus will persuade you of the truth of that and, more critically for our times, the utility of that claim. 

Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is also a strategic partner with Montrose Lane (an energy-tech venture fund). Previously, Mills cofounded Digital Power Capital, a boutique venture fund, and was chairman and CTO of ICx Technologies, helping take it public in 2007. Mills is author of the book The Cloud Revolution: How the Convergence of New Technologies Will Unleash the Next Economic Boom and a Roaring 2020s (Encounter Books, 2021), and host of the new podcast The Last Optimist.

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