According to Nesta, companies that combine art and science skills in their workforce show 8% higher sales growth than science-only firms and are 2% more likely to bring radical innovations to market. While these hard numbers show the benefits of collisions, it is sometimes difficult to think beyond the abstract numbers.
What really makes a successful collision or partnership?
What really makes a successful collision or partnership? In my career I have seen some amazing outcomes when different disciplines collide, whether that is artists and engineers, scientists and environmentalists, or politicians and performers. And every collision has been a positive experience with new connections made, new ideas brought to light, and even new business ventures launched.
In order for them to work, they do need an open mindset from everyone involved. It’s not about starting with a pre-defined ROI or specific end result in mind. Instead, you need to jump in and trust that something interesting will emerge. In this blog, I give a few examples that show the surprising outcomes of creative collisions.
Understanding what fundamental change really means
In order to see the true value of collisions, it is my opinion that you need to be open to question the true fundamentals of what drives our society or you as an individual. But what does fundamental really mean? The Cambridge dictionary defines fundamental as: forming the base, from which everything else develops. But again: how to go beyond these abstract words?
As an example, let’s look at an example that made me truly understand for the first time what fundamental change might really mean.
In 2014, I met David Marin, a Guatemalan artist and PhD in Theoretical Physics, who was taking part in Baltan Laboratories’ Age of Wonderland residency program. David has spent a lot of time studying Mayan culture and how to apply aspects of it to our daily lives. During his residency he declared that western Europeans were crazy and that the Roman calendar was the cause. People are increasingly stressed out trying to juggle job, family, friends, etc. We are all looking for the right work/life balance, taking mindfulness classes or going to yoga. But what if we actually addressed the fundamental problem, the seven-day week?
He suggested that we should drop it and instead adopt the Mayan calendar which has a 20-day cycle. In an oversimplified way, the Mayans dedicate a special point of attention to each day. One day to family, one day to nature, one day to work, one for friends, etc. While explaining it, I realize that I find it hard to even come up with twenty things to pay special attention to. It illustrates just how this would give us plenty of time in each cycle to do all the things we normally try to squeeze into a week. By questioning the things we take for granted, an outsider’s perspective can result in fundamental changes to the way we think, work and live. And while dropping the Roman calendar might not seem like such an urgent need, it does make one think about some of our other paradigms, like economic growth, in which we have had an almost blind adoration for the past centuries.
Realising the value of questions
There is a saying that there are no stupid questions, just stupid answers. Sometimes a clever observation can deliver a potential answer to a problem. But we should always recognise the value of the question, no matter how trivial it seems. Here are two examples.
‘How little light comes out of an OLED?” This question was asked by Chris Salter, an artist/researcher and professor Design and Computation Arts at Concordia university (Montreal), during his residency at Holst Centre. Why would he want to know that? After all, the focus of the research was on how to get more light out of these next generation lighting devices.
“It’s all about maximizing the amount of lumen per watt,” replied the researchers.
Chris wanted to know because he was researching the lower limits of perception. He had tried other light sources, including LEDs, but they all produced too discrete or too much light even at their lowest thresholds. With OLEDs, he was hoping to find a homogenous light source that operated at extremely low light levels.
Even if, it still might be unclear what tangible consequences this collision had,
what struck me most about this question is the fact that it was asked. It made everyone in the room, who had until then been so focused on generating more light, stop and think.
‘Have you ever asked the pigs?’ This was the question asked by Arie, who is an artist and designer from Jatiwangi art Factory (JaF) in Indonesia. An area where historically the inhabitants have a close relationship with nature.
During a co-creation session with Dutch companies from the agri-food sector, setup by ngo Hivos, we were looking for ways to improve the quality of life of pigs in factory farms. Not wanting to start the fundamental discussion on whether or not we should have such farms, it is well known that there is a direct correlation between the quality of meat and the quality of the animal’s life. But what counts as a good life for a pig? The companies outlined a number of things they were doing or planning to do, then asked Arie what else they could do.
Arie thought for a moment and then asked, “Have you asked the pigs?”
Again, I am not aware of any concrete outcomes of this question. But it was such a disruptive question that it at least made everyone stop and think about how we could take the real needs of the animals into consideration.
Looking at the big picture
As the popular movie “Now You See Me” quoted: “The closer you think you are, the less you’ll actually see.” In today’s world of big data, we risk facing the situation where ‘if you’re not being counted, you don’t count’ (a phrase I cordially borrow from artist Arne Hendriks). It is worth remembering that sometimes you need to take a step back and look at the big picture.
Artist duo, Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat execute research on human encounters and demystifying the kiss. They recorded the EEG patterns of couples kissing and analysed the results.
Looking at the initial results, they noticed some harmonious waves appearing and disappearing in the data visualizations. Even more interesting, the waves of one person were a mirror of the other. It made them really enthusiastic, since this had to be an important part of the identity of the kiss. However, their initial enthusiasm over the finding was countered when the researchers in the room explained it was not a result of brain activity, but of muscle movement. What they had observed was due to the people moving their heads during the kiss – if one person leant to the left then the other would lean to the right, hence the mirroring.
The engineers told them it was not a problem and they could easily remove these ‘artefacts’ from the signal. However, the artists told them not to as it formed an integral part of the kiss even if it was not actually an EEG measurement. One of the researchers participating in the experiment told me afterwards it made him realize that, by diving into the details, there is always a risk of potentially filtering out relevant contextual information.
Another example of creating insights by looking at things from a different perspective crossed my path when I met with Seterhen Akbar Suriadinata (Saska), another fellow from Baltan’s Age of Wonderland program.
Saska is an engineer co-founder of the community research group Riset Indie that focuses on research, product innovation and interactive design. In his home city of Bandung (Indonesia), traffic is chaotic and public transport relies mostly on private taxis, called angkot. But, as everyone could easily observe, people had a very negative attitude towards them.
The unique insight Saska and his colleagues had, was that this negative attitude had nothing to do with a failing infrastructure but was instead largely due to attitudes and perception. This was due to two major moments of friction: getting into and getting out of the angkot. When passengers get in, the self-employed taxi drivers are reluctant to drive unless their vehicle is full. For the drivers, this is necessary to maximise their income, so passengers often have to wait. When getting out, negotiating the price at the end is always a hassle as there are no agreed standard fares and it is unclear whether you pay for the distance travelled or the time it took.
So Riset Indie organised a crowdfunding campaign. They paid all the drivers in one district their average daily rate at the start of one day. As the drivers didn’t have to worry about getting paid, they would happily take off as soon as the first passenger stepped on board. And when the passenger went to pay, the driver would wave them off with a smile, putting a smile on the passenger’s face as well. For the duration of this one-day event, called Angkot day, the people’s perception of using the angkots completely changed. The drivers were happy because they did not have to worry about making enough money or having discussions with unhappy passengers. And the passengers were happy as they did not have to wait, negotiate, or even pay!
As a result, the mayor of Bandung heard about the scheme and this lead to the foundation of a community-led public transport council for the city to deliver a better service. This would not have been possible without that first step in changing the perception of the angkot taxis. An action initiated by a handful of ordinary citizens in a 2.4 million-people city.
Finding unexpected answers
One of the inherent characteristics of collisions is that the outcome is unpredictable and often not what we expect. And in the case of Sensiks, the answer was only realised 18 months after the collision.
Sensiks has developed a prototype sensory reality pod that delivers a truly immersive experience. They identified a number of potential target markets such as travel where a person can feel what it is like to be amongst elephants in the African savanna. Or trauma therapy where victims of trauma could face their fears in a controlled and safe environment. They organised a hackathon to find other potential markets but what they found instead was a new business model.
Things did not go quite as predicted for Sensiks Chief Experience Officer, Fred Galstaun during the hackathon. While all the participants thought the technology was amazing, rather than finding new markets for him, they all started building experience that you could not experience in real-life. For example, Lucandrea Baraldi & Jules Bernard, at the time Design Academy students, built an immersive experience that makes you feel what it is like to be a mobile phone. I was lucky enough to get to try the prototype and can honestly tell it was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I have ever had.
While Fred was happy that people liked the prototype sensory pod and had come up with some great ideas, I could read from his body language he was also a little disappointed. The outcome was not what he had expected. That was until I met with him again recently, some 18 months after the hackathon. He literally told me that only now does he finally understand the full impact of this collision. It gave him the insight and motivation to completely pivot his organisation. He is now preparing an initial coin offering to share his technology with the community. Based on an open source model and cryptocurrency-based revenue system, he aims to become a decentralized business in which Sensiks is just one of many players boosting the sensory reality domain and the hardware and software associated with it. So, while it sometimes takes a while for the outcome to become clear, one should never underestimate the impact of a collision.
Smelling is believing: art trumps technology
And sometimes you just have to see something to believe it. Or in this case, smell it.
In the framework of an Arteconomy project for Turnhout Cultural Capital, olfactory artist Peter de Cupere and Cartamundi, world leader in card games and playing cards, collaborated to create “Olfacio: the smelling iPad”. It features scratch and sniff cards of fantastical flowers that can be held close to the iPad, which then ‘smells’ them to create new hybrid species based on the cards selected. The magic, and I’m sorry for the spoiler, obviously does not result from the iPad actually smelling them, but from technology embedded in the cards.
Nothing unusual today, as near-field communication (NFC) has since become mainstream. But back when they developed the app, NFC-like technologies were still only emerging. In fact, when Cartamundi had presented its technical specifications to some customers just a year before, interest had been lukewarm. By showing them Olfacio and how the technology could actually be applied, the smell app changed all that and, less than six months after the art-project, Cartamundi had signed contracts with major global clients.
To the critical observer, the app is fairly limited in scope with only ten flower cards. There are no high scores to achieve or anything to win, just an inspiring combination of technology and art. However, it certainly changed the vision of Marco van Haaften, then Business Development Manager and now International Marketing Director at Cartamundi. He told me that he was so impressed by the business results generated by the app, that since then, he only hires employees with an artistic degree for his innovation team.
Be open to opportunity
Creative collisions are just that. You never know what you will get out of them. Going into a creative collaboration with a fixed goal in mind is likely to leave you disappointed. They cannot be measured upfront against KPIs, will not necessarily deliver an immediate ROI, or address any other business abbreviations. But if you go in with an open mind, you could come out with your fundamental beliefs challenged, be faced with challenging questions and, who knows, perhaps find the next big idea for your business.
There are no dumb questions, so why not start by asking how Luscinus can start creating collisions to support your creative projects…