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Walter E. Massey, Ph.D. Headshot

The Art of Innovation

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Recently I delivered the closing keynote address at the Committee on Institutional Cooperation's Global University Summit to a group of higher education leaders from around the world on the topic of innovation -- or more specifically, "developing talent to drive innovation in a global society." The audience consisted of presidents, chancellors, and provosts of major research universities from around the world. As president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I was the lone representative from an art and design school, so I took the opportunity to share what institutions like mine can contribute to global innovation.

As a longtime cultural enthusiast, yet somewhat new president of a school of art and design, I have a newfound appreciation for the importance of the kind of education offered by these schools. Subsequently, my views on what drives innovation in society have broadened as a result of being in this new world. As a physicist and erstwhile "science guy," I have honed my views on innovation through the lens of science and technology -- and the established and almost canonical scientific paradigm.

An oversimplification of that paradigm goes like this: basic research uncovers new insights and understandings leading to engineering and new products, devices, and methodologies, which then spawns new innovative enterprises.

This paradigm was promoted by Vannevar Bush, which led to the founding of the National Science Foundation in the U.S. His seminal report, "The Endless Frontier," made the case for government support of fundamental research because that underlying research would lead to new intellectual frontiers, which would lead to economic development. This paradigm has worked and in many ways is still valid.

However, a closer examination of the innovative process reveals it is not that simple or straightforward. We certainly need more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, but we may have been missing an opportunity by not more effectively engaging in the innovative process one of the most creative groups in our society -- artists and designers.

At SAIC, our curriculum is based on an interdisciplinary approach to art, design, and innovation. Sculpture students take writing classes; writing students study designed objects; design students enroll in art history classes; and art history students use the wood and metal shops.

Our students have the freedom to design their own pathways. They move freely among disciplines to integrate content and technique. They cut across boundaries. They create hybrid practices, and they explore all aspects of their creativity in order to address complex issues. Students at many other art and design schools have similar experiences. This kind of education is exactly what is needed to develop the talented individuals who will drive innovation in society -- the kind of people that columnist David Brooks described in a recent New York Times editorial entitled "The Creative Monopoly."

In that article Brooks discusses how we live in a culture that nurtures competitive skills, such as rigor, reliability, and discipline. All necessary, but these skills need to be supplemented with traits such as alertness, independence, and the ability to reclaim forgotten traditions. He argues, "Creative people don't follow the crowds. They seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through the wildernesses nobody knows." In other words, they innovate.

We have a laboratory at SAIC called Knowledge Lab. This is a place where students and faculty collaborate around the topics and processes of knowledge, innovation, and research. They collectively identify important subjects -- such as energy, waste, or urban agriculture -- undertake in-depth research, and formulate interdisciplinary projects aimed at the production of new knowledge, which can make a meaningful contribution to understanding these issues.

This knowledge leads to socially responsible individuals who will have an impact on society -- individuals like SAIC alumna Emily Pilloton (MFA 2005). A designer, builder, and high school educator based in North Carolina, Emily founded the nonprofit design firm Project H to use creative capital to improve communities and public education from the inside out. She also set up Studio H, a one-year program that teaches design thinking and vocational construction skills within the public school system. Over the course of one year, Emily's high school students earn 17 college credits in a studio environment, and earn summer wages to build the architectural community project they have spent the school year designing.

Alumni like Emily reinforce the fact that all over the world, artists and designers are engaging with timely issues and working with unexpected communities in innovative ways. Whether the issue is sustainability, public education, or social justice, artists and designers engage, adapt, reimagine, and continue to move the definition of innovation forward.