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The Nexus

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The Nexus

Augmented Thinking for a Complex World – The New Convergence of Art, Technology & Science

MIT Press,

15 min read
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The existential problems facing humanity require complex solutions, generated in a cross-disciplinary idea space that supports left- and right-brain thinking.

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Humanity faces massively complex problems on a global scale today, ranging from epidemics to environmental degradation. These problems demand complex, coordinated solutions, explain Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau. Throughout history, moments of “genius” and periods marked by innovation, creativity and discovery, such as the Italian Renaissance, have occurred when ideas and practitioners from the arts, sciences and technology cross-pollinated. Drawing inspiration from diverse disciplines such as painting and quantum physics, Ottino and Mau call on innovators to find a shared language with which to tackle the challenges and complex problems the world faces today.


  • Existential challenges require a boundary-pushing approach to problem-solving.
  • Renaissance whole-brain thinkers, or “geniuses,” moved fluidly between disciplines.
  • The notion of “lone genius” is a myth; creativity doesn’t occur in a vacuum.
  • Ideating in the Nexus requires a meta-analysis of art, science and technology. 
  • Cross-disciplinary collaborations trigger new possibilities and innovation.
  • Embrace complexity and seemingly opposed perspectives.
  • Nexus thinkers should apply boundary-crossing lessons to their endeavors.
  • Nexus leaders balance left- and right-brain perspectives and align teams with a shared vision. 


Existential challenges require a boundary-pushing approach to problem-solving.

Humankind must collaborate to find solutions to existential challenges by embracing augmented thinking and blurring boundaries between art, science and technology. Conceptualize the harmonious convergence of these three primary fields of human creativity as occurring in an idea space – the “Nexus.” Expand the commonly understood definition of creativity to extend beyond the arts and into technology and science by supporting innovators with a conceptual framework rooted in complex systems theory.

“Any creative idea or endeavor must deal with the future. Yet what can we say about the future with any certainty? All we can do is predict that chaos and complexity will increase.”

Creating a Nexus fuels powerful mind-set shifts for people working in:

  1. Business – Future leaders need to become “whole-brain thinkers,” deconstructing problems and finding solutions with skills including empathy and logic, which associate with opposing sides of the brain. Leaders must develop open-mindedness and mental flexibility, overcoming the desire for simplistic, “sanitized” ideas and becoming more comfortable with ambiguity.
  2. Creative fields – Artists often view those working in science and technology as detached, lacking in creativity and cold. Some purists view design as a superficial media, as opposed to proper “Art.” Artists must overcome these stereotypes to focus on the many commonalities they share with scientists and technologists and vice versa.
  3. Government – Those who lead on a governmental level must contend with the erosion of citizens’ trust and the decline of the top-down command and control leadership model. They must carefully balance the needs of diverse groups, translating solutions from different fields into action during crises.

Renaissance whole-brain thinkers, or “geniuses,” moved fluidly between disciplines.

While art, science and technology mostly operate separately, each with its own rules and language, there are historic examples of these three spheres collaborating. During the European Renaissance, for example, artists, designers and engineers worked together in Florence, with the “geniuses” of the time often moving fluidly between disciplines such as painting and engineering. Drawing was foundational, not only to the visual arts in the Renaissance, but to science and mathematics. It was the astronomer, engineer and physicist Galileo’s skill in watercolors, for example, that helped him convey his impressions of the moon. His grasp of chiaroscuro – painting light and shadows – helped Galileo deduce that craters peppered the moon. 

“It was as if two sides of the brain, seamlessly connected during the Renaissance, split.”

Harvard’s science historian Gerald Holton explains that “a culture is kept alive by the interaction of all its parts.” Science operates today divorced from the intuitive, creative, metaphorical world of art, and focuses instead on rationality, analysis and deconstructing challenges into isolated parts. Technology emerges as an innovative field in that it combines approaches both artistic and scientific. To truly embrace innovation and respond to today’s challenges, science and art must overcome their disconnect: Visual imagination, for example, is crucial to scientific understanding, while those in the arts can help people view science and technology with fresh perspectives. 

The notion of “lone genius” is a myth; creativity doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

Creativity expresses itself differently across the spheres of science, art and technology within the Nexus. Scientists create by building upon past events and methodically accumulating knowledge, while only rarely prompting radical paradigm shifts. Artists focus less on notions of “progress,” and more upon triggering radical disruptions and fostering uniqueness. Technologists create through triggering disruptions – as do artists – and by accumulating knowledge – as do scientists.

“Associating one idea to one person is convenient, but it’s rarely the whole story.”

In all three spheres of human activity, a myth pervades about sudden moments of “lone genius.” People believe that moments of genius – for example, a scientific discovery or creating a painting – happen when someone works alone in a social vacuum. In reality, genius results from a lengthy, often collaborative process. 

When observing the “final picture,” whether that be a scientific study or a painting, consider the myriad sources of inspiration and steps that contributed to the finished result. While viewers today see only the finished version of Picasso’s painting Guernica, Picasso made 43 preparatory sketches before painting the masterpiece. Consider theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the “adjacent possible” when reflecting on scientific and technological breakthroughs: Different people working within the same fields can arrive at the same discoveries and draw similar conclusions. For example, Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus. This demonstrates the importance of the inputs and shared understanding leading up to a moment of “genius.”

Ideating in the Nexus requires a meta-analysis of art, science and technology. 

Moving across the domains of art, science and technology requires cultivating an understanding of the boundaries between and similarities shared by these domains. Artist Marcel Duchamp, for example, popularized the notion that art could encompass all facets of reality. There is no simplistic definition of art, which by its nature seeks to destabilize the familiar and present the ordinary in a new light. Science, by contrast, encompasses the desire to distill complexity into the simplest forms possible.

“Contemporary art embodies a widespread avalanche of mind-bending, challenging, thought-provoking, puzzling (at times baffling), unclassifiable, and perplexing works, without any mainstream and geographical centrality. It’s enough to make the world of technology seem almost sluggish.”

Technology contains facets of science and art. Technologists concern themselves with invention, while scientists seek discoveries. Artists can operate without a clear sense of purpose, but frequently an artist’s objectives are to provoke, incite or confront. Art serves as a catalyst in the Nexus: It forms new connections, triggers perception shifts and enables people to view themselves and the world differently. Art is valuable as a human response to living in the world, amidst chaos and evolving structures.

Cross-disciplinary collaborations can trigger new possibilities and innovation.

Consider the notable intersections of art, science and technology. In 1950, for example, the artist Harry Holtzman launched trans/formation, a cross-disciplinary journal, featuring contributors including the French sculptor and painter Marcel Duchamp and German theoretical physicists Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein. 

Examples of people attempting to generate creativity through interdisciplinary collaborations include: The Lunar Society, a dinner club that met on the full moon, with a guest list of intellectuals, engineers, scientists and industrialists in Birmingham, England; the German art school, the Bauhaus, which bridged the divide between the applied arts – interior and graphic design – and the fine arts such as painting; and AT&T’s Bell Labs, a research and development company that gave multidisciplinary teams the freedom to experiment and create together between the 1940s and the late 1970s. At Bell Labs, for example, teams achieved a long list of breakthroughs, encompassing digital photography technology, the earliest cell phone systems and the Unix operating system.

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of different ideas. Fusing thinking spaces – merging domains – is the first step toward augmenting the set of possible solutions.”

To make art, science and technology function more cohesively together, one must focus not so much on the products each creates, but rather, on the shared thought processes and cross-pollination of ideas. Design bridges right- and left-brain styles of thinking, connecting the worlds of art, science and technology by drawing individuals with strengths from fields such as engineering, psychology and graphic art. To achieve worthy design, you must leverage the right-brain propensity for aesthetic, metaphorical and divergent modes of thinking and the left brain’s analytical, quantitative and rational abilities. The word “design” connotes the ability to “conceive, create, execute and build according to a plan.” Every environment, system, object and human-made process you engage with in your daily life contains elements of design.

Embrace complexity and seemingly opposed perspectives.

Complex systems theory holds that when different elements, or “agents,” interact, you can achieve outcomes you wouldn’t have achieved if you isolated the agents from one another. This phenomenon – “emergence” – is observable in nature: Studying one starling in isolation grants you no insights into the murmurations of flocks. Nexus thinkers must understand complex systems holistically, rather than thinking reductively. Nexus thinkers embrace the quantum physics concept of “complementarity,” that something can be two seemingly opposing things at once. In quantum mechanics, for example, light is a wave and a particle. In the Nexus, order and chaos must coexist, and people must hold space for that complexity.

“Complex systems-based thinking is becoming essential to operate in today’s world.”

Complicated systems have top-down design, with components working together to achieve a single function, in, for example, a Boeing 787. Complex systems are more intricate and lack a unifying blueprint because their creators were not working top-down. The natural world, for example, is complex: You can’t reduce nature into its smallest parts and accurately predict how those parts will behave. You must holistically consider entire ecosystems. In complex systems, you frequently witness the “spontaneous emergence of synchronization.” For example, fireflies light up in unison to ward off predators. In social systems, you can witness something similar: People sharing an anchoring perspective, for example, can engage in sudden, simultaneous bursts of creativity, breakthrough or innovation.

Nexus thinkers should apply boundary-crossing lessons to their work.

People in art, science and technology can benefit from these domain-crossing lessons:

  • Creation is hard work – Don’t forget that those who create masterpieces or achieve breakthroughs usually fail several times before their moments of “genius.”
  • Learn the rules to break them – To achieve a breakthrough, familiarize yourself with the rules governing the domain you hope to transform. For example, study the accepted norms of painting to create new ones.
  • “Adopt and adapt” – Thomas Edison explains that when it comes to your idea, you should glean inspiration from different sources, but you must be original in the way you adapt these building blocks to find a solution.
  • Don’t wait around for inspiration – Mark Twain famously said that “the secret of getting started is getting started.” Make time for reflection, but make sure you actually engage in the creative process.
  • Prepare for unexpected connections – When trying to solve complex problems, search for hidden linkages between elements to better understand the behavior of complex systems.

Nexus leaders balance left- and right-brain perspectives and align teams with a shared vision. 

World-leading organizations should become hubs for Nexus thinking, which manifests in two ways: “Surface-level” Nexus thinking occurs when teams visibly merge science and technology with the arts, or when engineers embrace raw emotion. “Embedded-level” Nexus thinking occurs in the synergy between modes of different modes of thinking throughout the organization, as between inductive and deductive thinking. Moving into the future, organizations must apply right-brain and left-brain thinking to new technologies, such as AI. Those building complex AI systems, must, for example, not neglect the importance of empathy to ensure machines can serve a diverse range of users. 

“Process and creativity can coexist. It is about replacing the word ‘versus’ by the word ‘and.’ This is the very essence of operating at the Nexus.”

Nexus leaders help teams achieve solutions by striving for balance between left- and right-brain perspectives. When creating Nexus organizations, leaders must compose teams of people that possess the divergent thinking creativity requires and the convergent thinking that implementing ideas demands. The leaders of Nexus teams should think of themselves as possessing organizational “compasses,” as opposed to “maps.” The journey ahead is ambiguous, but Nexus thinking can help align teams by anchoring individuals with shared values and a broader sense of purpose.

About the Authors

Founding co-director of Northwestern University’s Institute on Complex Systems Julio Mario Ottino is a Guggenheim Fellow. Designer and educator Bruce Mau is CEO of the design consultancy Massive Change Network.

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