08 Jan

Edwards, David A. The lab: Creativity and cultureHarvard University Press, 2011. 


One of the mind-changing books I read for the last year was David Edward’s “The Lab: Creativity and culture”. It geared up my thinking over the two domains’ reconciliation that never came out in an explicable way before. Prof. Edwards is affiliated with the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences at Harvard University where he mainly teaches the practice of ideas translation. Exploring the new ‘synthesizing’ ways of food and drug delivery, he founded the experimental art and design center ‘Le Laboratoire’ where artists and scientists educate and innovate. This book is an introduction to practice experiment-based visioneering.

For one who specializes in the history of science and knowledge’ generation and communication, this piece is worthy to read. “The Lab” unveils how innovators apply their expertise and creative instinct to stand out with the life-changing projects. The book’s structure leads us through the processes of an idea’s conception, development, maturation, and its blossom as an innovative piece that matters for many people. We can easily grasp the author’s intent to inspire a reader to pursue the dreams at the frontiers of knowledge. Likewise, Edwards’ approach is drawn from art and science as the two primary sources of the aesthetic tools for hypothesis generation and analytical operations for hypothesis’ testing. Innovation is nothing else but a dream in its material dimension. And Professor draws a pattern of its formation. 

Innovation’s genesis starts with a concept that later develops in an idea. Then in processes of reflection, research, intimate discussion, or insight it becomes more detailed and results in a dream. With its birth, we get tempted to share it. That is a risky step and, of course, first time, or several, we might be wounded by its rejection or outroot criticism. Still, there are no other ways to learn swimming but to put ourselves in water. Eventually, our dream will resonate with several people. And at this moment innovation catalysis takes place.

Creative bands are the driving force of innovation. Its success is generally determined by the distribution of work and responsibility. As with the Beatles, there should be a combination of talents that will harmonize and stimulate each other. The author’s personal experience is a perfect argument to his thesis: “We create best, and longest, when working with others who challenge, encourage, and generally help us better articulate and develop ideas.” (P. 153) 

The band, whose frontman he became, started with a collaboration of the French colloid scientist Jérôme Bibette and Thierry Marx who specializes in molecular gastronomy and who sought to develop the “spherification” method for encapsulating flavors. Their experiments on the future ‘Le Whif’ – food breathing mechanism – worked as soon as the idea was shared by Edwards who has extensive research experience on the vaccine’s delivery to the lungs. Within this background, Professor nurtured a dream to make food breathable by marrying the two basic human needs in the same act. The idea of ‘Le Whif’ came out as a commercial and humanitarian innovation as soon as it was supported by José Sanchez, who believed in its success and became a president of the new backing up venture ‘LaboGroup’. (P. 35) 

Edwards would hardly succeed to intersect aerosol science and culinary art without the help from other specialists and enthusiasts. This help implies both, provision of the expertise to aim the short-term goals, and share of the belief in some long-term meaningful dream. (P. 160-2) As if all members of a creative band relate in a deeply personal way to an idea, each tends to be watchful, react autonomously, and act as a leader of a band at times. Creative bands naturally emerge based on some organizational infrastructure or facilitate its formation if there is no such (P. 163) 

Creative bands are often, though not always, driven by young people who justly stand against the specialization system that mostly restricts innovation. (P. 159) Hence, it seems that the perfect model of collaborative structure for innovation and education is the artscience lab which expands the possibilities of experimentation beyond those of traditional science labs (P. 172-3). 

The process of ideas translation as an art is to make empathize with an object those who were not intimate participants of its creation. This dialogue between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ is of paramount importance because it contributes education of both parts. Thus, the public is an integral component for the lab: almost as readers of scientific publications, they are “to question, critique, and carry ideas further.” (P. 107) The artistic regime of a science presentation and its functioning, such as exhibition or performance, serves to intimately involve audiences in the ‘production’ process. It also calls for feedback that often lacks traditional science research as well as commercial products (P. 79). 

In contrast to the traditional lab, artscience lab is inclusive so amateur enthusiasts may join as the full members. Such accessibility is the key to achieve both educational and cultural, humanitarian, and commercial outcomes (P. 172-5). As Professor highlights, self-interest is internally socially-oriented – we explore and design things that will potentially serve long after its author(s) death for others benefit. Altruistic dimension reveals itself when we explain the reason to care of some subject by referencing something we share with other people – ‘our’ world, etc. (P. 133) 

Finally, I am to say about the educational dimension of dreaming. To start an idea’s transmission author(s) should master its communication thus to call for others' commitment. However, in the traditional education environment, students are rarely taught or encouraged to follow their passion.  Sincere commitment to any kind of world phenomena, that makes innovators follow a dream despite any hardships on the way, remains underestimated by the institutions. The model of artscience lab works well in that way due to its fundamental interdisciplinarity. Providing expressive environments that benefit creators, the lab seeks to collaborate with the established institutions to inspire sustainable changes. (P. 17) Still, the academic milieu that gratifies learning unrestrained by the practical output and financial benefits seems to be promising. Specialization fostered in our educational systems needs to be ‘tuned’ so to help one pursue a dream and not dissociate from the inner voice on the way of studentship. And the ideas’ translation approach is a good introduction to such transition.

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