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An Appetite for Innovation

Harvard’s David Edwards talks to Nautilus about how ideas can change the world.

To view the video, click the “play” icon above. How many Harvard professors have you heard of who have their own restaurant, much…By Gayil Nalls

To view the video, click the “play” icon above.

How many Harvard professors have you heard of who have their own restaurant, much less one with a gastronomy manifesto? Once you get to know David Edwards, a biomedical engineer and specialist in sensorial design and delivery, the restaurant comes as no surprise. Called Café ArtScience, it lets users try novel foods like vapor chocolate cake and frozen sweets delivered in edible skins, made with instruments straight from the science lab. Besides being delicious and playful, the menus reflect Edwards’ broader perspective on the world: A writer, inventor, and entrepreneur, he thinks that most of the problems we face today are problems of innovation.

Innovation is something of a mantra for Edwards. His Harvard course, “How to create things & have them matter,” teaches students about “ideas, how we imagine them, and especially how we continually reimagine them.” His students often meet next door to ArtScience, at Le Laboratoire, a center for art, design, and learning, which he founded. Edwards originally opened it in Paris, before moving it to near MIT, in the heart of biotech start-up country.

Together, the spaces form what Edwards sees as public culture lab, bringing different disciplines together. He champions the transdisciplinary ethos, experimental learning in the arts and sciences, and young innovators. These ideas are the subject of much of his published writing, including the book, Artscience: Creativity in the post-Google Generation.

Edwards sat down with Nautilus this past May at Café ArtScience in Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss his perspective, not just on the future of food, but on the type of innovation he thinks our future requires.

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Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist, philosopher, and theorist. Her work investigates personal and collective sensory experiences, memory, and identity.


Interview Transcript

What is innovation?

Innovation is a combination of a few things actually. It begins as what we think of as creation, this notion of imagining something that did not quite exist before. It passes through a phase that’s something I call translation. It’s experimentation; it’s curiosity; it’s empathy; it’s sort of bonding with risk takers; it’s learning, it’s a lot of learning; and ultimately, it’s realization, which is a phase where the idea—which has matured from the created moment, through this translated moment, to being something that actually possesses value, not only in the mind of the creator but actually, [also] in the context of the particular innovation. And then it becomes a living thing. So it’s easy to make the connection between innovation and raising a child actually. There’s a lot of similarities between the phases of childhood and the moment when the child is now out, never completely out, and innovation I think is like that. Unfortunately we often telescope innovation into being that first thing or the last thing, but the life of an innovator is mostly spent in that middle thing.

What is the difference between innovation and creativity?

Creativity is a mindset, and that mindset has several values that tend to be common amongst creators; but it evolves in those three phases that I just described to you. So a creative mind in that early sandbox phase tends to be sort of, remarkable—to the extent that it is thinking out of the box and building sandcastles that have never been built before. Creativity in that second phase tends to be anxious for failure and looking to learn quickly through failure, super confident that every failure is simply a step in the direction of learning, that’s going to lead to this idea being actually realized. And creativity in the last phase tends to be anything but gloating and much more conscious of all there is still to do and constantly looking at ways in which this idea that everyone else is looking at is the kid that’s getting his or her diploma—all the things that still need to be done to make that young person actually really who he or she can be. So again, the notion of creativity tends to be telescoped, but it is a mindset, whereas innovation is a process.

How is your idea of “catalysts” a process that leads to breakthrough ideas?

Interestingly, we live in a world and in a time where there are many ways to see this—lots of opportunity, lots of risk, and one of the things that we have done in creating civilization as we know it is to compartmentalize that opportunity and to often, hide that risk. That often leads to not really discovering the opportunity and ignoring the risk and therefore, is detrimental to innovation.

One of the things that creators do in their own lives, and then in the lives of others, is look for ways to break down those walls that are compartmentalizing opportunity and hiding risk so that it is all suddenly obvious in a kind of frightening way, often; and it leads to this notion of catalysis. So what is catalysis? In chemistry, catalysis is this phenomenon that happens when two molecules or states of matter come into contact and suddenly, the one is providing just exactly what the other was looking for and there’s this, what we call, auto-catalytic—or really fast—kind of reaction that leads to something, generates heat, and sort of changes things. And that, of course, sounds a lot like adolescence, right? There’s a lot that goes on when you’re young; it’s very catalytic, where suddenly you see the world in a very, very different way. Creators, innovators, are looking for those opportunities to become young again, to catalyze a new vision; and so when I talk often about art and science and moving across the boundary of those conventional domains, or if you look at the Laboratoire and Café ArtScience and so forth, generally setting up environments where those walls come down, and therefore this notion of catalysis, is fundamental to what we do here.

Is catalyzing a vision something you teach in your course, “How to create things & have them matter?”

So what do we do in my class, “How to create things and have them matter?” We help young people begin to realize dreams and in a way, the class itself is a kind of catalysis. We sort of catalyze a thought process that’s pretty surprising—and often frightening—to my students initially. [These students] have become high achievers by doing what they were told to do and doing it really, really well, and never really opening their mouths or writing something on a piece of paper without being confident that they really know what they were talking about or writing about; and my class is completely the opposite, where I’m saying your strength is in what you don’t know actually, and [it] is in the innocence that you bring to this class—that you want to eliminate, but it’s actually the most valuable thing you can bring to the world so you need to protect that.

I then ask them to tell me what matters to you, and it’s a little bit more complicated, but that’s sort of what’s going on. And then once I convince them that I care, I ask them to convince me that anybody else cares and why, and of course that’s frightening and it leads them to typically, firstly, look out and wonder why does it matter. Inevitably, they go through doors and barriers as these innocent young people and learn, and ultimately their idea changes and they grow and they learn how to realize dreams; but in all of that, there is this initial moment where I’m sort of catalyzing, sort of breaking down a barrier, which is an educational barrier in terms of how to think about learning—which of course has nothing to do with how we learn out in the real world, in a world that’s changing.

And then just in the process of getting to a point at the end of the semester where they can articulate their dream and convince us that it matters and then, with a little funding, go out and actually start to realize their dream—to get to that point is just a constant series of catalytic moments that I think are not too dissimilar—again, I come back to child raising. I have three boys, young boys, and so I think about that a lot; but it’s very similar. There are often moments where you just need to catalyze some change of behavior and it leads to this learning, so yes, we do that in my class.

What kind of problems are you personally trying to solve and what type of problems do your students take on?

So I am, very personally, very interested in human health and its sustainability in a world of limited resources, so that’s kind of ultimately what I’m really interested in. I’m fascinated that we are in a time where 10 percent of people who’ve ever lived on the planet lived in the last 50 or 60 years, and we’ve completely managed to invent a way to sustain this massive number of people; but it actually is not itself sustainable, so we’re at a point where it’s all got to change. How we eat, how we communicate, how we learn, how we deliver healthcare—it’s all going to be changing, and so that really fascinates me. And I don’t think we’re going to figure it out without a big conversation. It’s not anybody sitting in their room being very smart about what the world needs. It’s kind of this big, massive conversation because it’s going to lead to changed behavior in a massive way, so I’m really fascinated in that. You know, there are more specifics but that’s kind of the high level.

This whole space, which is a public, kind of a public lab, is for me personally part of that agenda. Having said that, as a creator, I am moved and energized and sharpened by the creation of others as well, so I’m really interested in learning from others and in helping others realize their dreams and becoming a part of those dreams. So with my students, each year I have a different theme. This year’s theme is the man-machine interface. And every year it’s different. I seed my class, and then there’s an international program, with ideas, really blue-sky ideas. I kind of choose a theme that I don’t really know too much, or haven’t really thought too much, about, and then just in my innocence, I throw ideas out that seem kind of interesting to me, and invite students to form teams around those ideas and make them their own. So in the phenomenon of them making [those ideas] their own, I learn a lot about what it means to be 18 today, or 20 today, or 14 today, and it’s always very surprising; and so the ideas really go in all different directions.

It’s funny, this man, human, just to give you an example, one of the ideas I seeded in my class this winter was related to this notion that machines might deliver empathy and I was thinking about ballet and how some movements actually sort of deliver an empathetic reaction and my students ended up taking that in the direction of police-community relations and this notion that there might be a way of engendering greater empathetic relationships between the police force and the community, which is of course very topical, very relevant; and it was a very mixed group of people who were working on that idea and [it] led to just … I learned a lot and it was very, very moving. So I think in a creative process, giving enough structure so that people who are just starting to learn to create feel that they have a starting spot—and yet knowing when to sort of step back and let ideas emerge that are not necessarily your own or where you would take them, is really, really important.

Is the idea of trans-disciplinary process problem solving on the national agenda now?

Yes, I think it is, absolutely. In fact, this notion of trans-disciplinary exploration for discovering tomorrow is not only on the national level in the way I just described, but if you go into any of the major labs around Cambridge, you will find—and I can pretty much guarantee any of [the major labs]—the pioneers of those labs at crossroads between more than one different disciplines. It’s almost a truism right now in pioneering research that the opportunities are lying at the interface between biology and math or between architecture and biology or, and so forth, and so the notion of a radical trans-disciplinary opportunity has been much more recent, but this move toward an inter-disciplinary kind of a world has been in the works in the research community for quite a few years now.

Can you explain the philosophy that binds your book, ArtScience, and the Boston restaurant and bar, also named ArtScience?

I invented that word—of course, it’s been used before, but I kind of gave it a really definite meaning—partly as a provocation; in a real way, art-science is a fundamental process of creativity that wouldn’t really have needed this kind of complex word were we not as compartmentalized as we have become; and so it’s kind of a troubling word.

The notion of art-science can be understood in the following sense: When you or I develop an idea that has some complexity—and some hypothetical idea that might be, you know: I have an idea that my ring, which is not on my hand right now, fell under my bed—I mean, just something very simple like that, and so then what do you do? When you have like a dream, you sort of then say, well okay, I make a hypothesis and then I’m going to sort of test that hypothesis. So my hypothesis: It’s under my bed; and so I get up and I go and I look under my bed and I don’t see it’s under my bed. That moment of not seeing [that] it’s under my bed is a moment I remember. It’s like, oh my gosh, and my heart sinks and I go back in my bed and, what am I going to do? And I’m kind of stuck. It’s not like I can deduce where it is. That’s not going to work. I need to let my mind be imaginative and so I’m kind of dreaming and thinking about it but the minute I kind of seize onto some little idea, I need to be deductive.

There’s this kind of process that goes on for all of us when we develop hypothetical ideas that is very common to all of us in those moments of crisis when we have—either we’re at the beginning of this process or we’re at some intermediate stage where we’ve tried something and it didn’t work out exactly as we expected and now what do we do? And it is a combination of this intuitive imaginative thinking that we think of as the process of art—as opposed to the outcome of art and artistic practice—and then this analytical deductive quantitative process that we think of as kind of the scientific process—as opposed to the result of science; and those things are happening at the same time and they both need to happen actually. We can’t just sit in our bed and have all these great ideas and not ever get up and kind of do something, so there needs to be this ability to deduce—but if we’re just deducing we’re never going to really make any discovery, actually.

So I talk about art-science as a universal process that makes us all common creators and share a kind of language, and so the environments that I’ve set up, including Café ArtScience, are environments where I am looking to invite people to be a little confused, okay, a little bit like the person who doesn’t really know where their ring is—and to have fun in those moments because actually, if you talk to creators or innovators, the serial writer or the serial entrepreneur, why do they live that life? It’s just like they’re constantly facing the blank page without knowing what to do and why do they do it? Because it’s fun, actually. They’re young, they’re curious, they’re around people who are curious; they are empathetic. I mean, all those values that they kind of hold dear are ones that everybody shares around and so it should be fun.

The final thing to say is that what makes real innovation happen is the ability of any of us to be happy in those moments of crisis as we’re developing an idea, and so fulfilled in this art-science process; and so I spend a lot of time … If you look around, you’ll see that there’s a lot of fun that we kind of show. It’s kind of a poetic sort of, not very serious kind of environment because I think, you know, another thing to say about being a creator is [that] it’s a lot of work. It’s very stressful and you’re very close, very often, to having your dream dashed, and maybe, you know, a lot worse than that; and so this notion of dancing and laughing is quite important.

Who were your most inspiring crossover art-science practitioners?

Well, firstly—to be honest in the answer and almost evade the answer—I’ll say that my most inspiring art-science creators are children, so I’m quite moved in seeing how children learn and how they listen and how they create themselves and I think that in a way, all of us in our adult lives are recreating that in some way, particularly in this kind of a creative life. There are some of us, some who I know, who are exemplary for sure and I can talk about some people that I work with right now who I admire enormously.

One designer, an architect at MIT who I had a chance to work with here over the last few years is Neri Oxman. She’s an incredibly talented designer-architect who is creating a world, an aesthetic material world that is very courageous of her to do. It’s exciting the cultural world immensely and yet, it’s sort of a confusing complex world. She thinks in very complex ways. Right now one of the things that’s happening in design—and frankly in engineering and architecture—is this move toward not just the form of nature, but also the function of nature. We’re starting to understand how nature functions and that’s leading to some radical changes in design. Anyway, Neri is somebody I admire tremendously.

I’m working with the artist from Random International. They did the Rain Room at MoMA a year and a half ago, or so, and originally the Barbican—and I’ve known them since they were in school actually and it’s a very funny story; but I admire them a lot because it’s a collective. They’ve become massively popular with this incredible project and we’re now doing a project [together], which will be showing here next year. They’re really authentic researchers and they could really do well kind of continuing doing rain rooms around the world because they’re invited to do them all over the place, but they are super interested in this notion of what we call the uncanny valley—that as machines become anthropomorphic, initially they’re sort of appealing to us, but as they become too close to what we are, we suddenly become afraid and repulsed and so there’s this kind of valley of perception that gets deeper and deeper as they try and get closer and closer to what we are and so that’s pretty weird; it’s highly relevant to what’s going on right now and they explore it in an aesthetic way that’s quite moving.

The last person I’ll mention that we’re doing another project with is Mark Dion, who is a contemporary artist in New York City, and [a] very serious artist. The project is around jellyfish and the future of the oceans and it’s called the “Trouble with Jellyfish.” Mark is, again, a contemporary artist but [also] a true researcher and passionately convinced that the arts, the contemporary arts, matter to where the world’s going and is on kind of a mission, which has all the irony of a highly accomplished contemporary artist, but I admire those people. So I think all of us, and particularly when you’re living in a world that’s kind of changing constantly, the people who are really speaking together [are] people around you right now; and if you’re lucky, [it’s] those three people.

Where do you go for new inspiration to inform your work and to charge your battery?

Well, I spend a lot of time at sea to kind of get my bearings actually, which is relevant to the Nautilus kind of title there. I am leaving in a few days and doing a five-day solo trip offshore and so you know, 10 miles off the coast and nobody can contact you and so space changes, but time [also] changes and it’s my way of reconnecting.

How did the O devices, such as the phone that sends scent like text, come about?

For the last 20 years, a lot of my work has related to the air. And if you think about the medium that we’re most in contact with, it’s the air and yet we don’t really see the air; we don’t kind of think of it as something other than what we breathe, and so it fascinates me as a medium for improving life. So, I’ve been from the early days … I developed inhaled insulin for treating diabetes and then I have you know, done other inhaled drug and vaccine work in the developing world, and then I was very interested in delivering food to the mouth. So in a way, if you look at the trajectory, it’s led me ultimately to this “O” platform, which is the ultimate platform as far as I’m concerned.

I am really intrigued, more than intrigued, passionately involved now, in introducing a third dimension to global communications. We have five senses. Three of these are transported through the air, through the vector of sound and light and scent. Scent is very different than light and sound and so all the efforts to integrate it into global communications, and why not? Because we wouldn’t be here if all of our five senses didn’t work for us and so it’s not really normal that we just take two of the senses and make that global communications; it limits what global communications can be. So I’m fascinated to bring scent in. [A] lot of people have been [bringing it in], but it is different. I know that you hear what I’m saying, you see what I’m seeing, but if I give you a scent, I don’t know that you’re smelling it actually. It diffuses, it goes everywhere, it sticks on you; and if I gave you the scent of mushroom and the scent of chocolate and the scent of onion, likely you’re going to get a cloud of all of that and it’s stuck to you and you’ll carry it for the rest of the day and so it’s been messy to—and impossible really—to integrate until now.

Over the last 10 years—last five years especially—science, medical science, has become fascinated with scent in that it turns out that your ability to smell varies over the course of your day, over the course of a week, over the course of your life, and obviously it varies between you and me; and that variance is a clear reflection of your health state. Before you eat and after you eat, you have different scent abilities and so it varies. That’s the first thing. The second thing, we know that scent is a really powerful instigator of young memory and of physiological change, so if I say croissant, that’s one thing; if you smell it, you begin to salivate actually, and so there’s a real physiological effect. The only sensorial nerve that goes right to your brain is the olfactory nerve and so when you smell before you’re cognitively analyzing what has happened, there’s an emotion, there’s a physiological reaction.

So it’s quite primitive, quite interesting, and getting back to my interest in health, it’s a very interesting and powerful way of both delivering health and also monitoring health. So as we integrate scent through the O platform, which ranges from, what we are thinking of as a kind of iTunes of scent or aroma, and it’s evolving, and will evolve over the coming months, to a series of devices that range from clothing to telephones to iPads and so forth. We will be creating an amazing communication platform wherever scent matters, but also fingerprints that can help us guide people to better healthcare outcomes. We haven’t talked much about this, but there’s a big thing going on right now in the medical community and we’re very involved in this and it’s just really quite fascinating to me.

What would you be if you weren’t an art-science person?

What would I want to do? Well, I’m the kind of person who’s kind of done everything I really want to do but you know, I write and I creatively write and have for, you know, most all my life. It’s always been an early morning thing I do. I get up and I write. And I have lots of books and novels that I’ve never published, [that] are just sitting around, because it’s always been just for me. And I’ve had different moments in my life where I’ve thought, ah you know, maybe I’m just going to really focus my life on that.

But I’ve learned that my writing is a way for me to understand the world and the world that I’m living now, and if I cease to live that world right now, actually my writing sort of loses its kind of agenda and purpose and so it’s a joy and frustration to me that I, on the one hand would love to be able to just dedicate myself to that—my first novel’s coming out next year or this year in French and it’s something I’ve worked on for 18 years, so it’s like a huge long … well gosh, I should’ve just really focused on that—but it’s kind of not who I am so I guess, it might be fun to be a bird or a dolphin actually if I had a choice!

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