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This publication can be found online at http://pubpub.org/pub/designandscience.
Design and Science
Can design advance science, and can science advance design?
Joichi Ito
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On Professor Neri Oxman’s Krebs Cycle of Creativity of the relationship between the disciplines, design and science are opposite one another on the circle, and the output of one is not the input of the other as is often the case of engineering and design or science and engineering. I believe that by making a “lens” and a fusion of design and science, we can fundamentally advance both. This connection includes both the science of design and the design of science, as well as the dynamic relationship between these two activities.
As I have written previously[1], one of the first words that I learned when I joined the Media Lab in 2011 was “antidisciplinary.” It was listed as a requirement in an ad seeking applicants for a new faculty position. Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. But antidisciplinary is something very different; it’s about working in spaces that simply do not fit into any existing academic discipline–a specific field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods.
For me, antidisciplinary research is akin to mathematician Stanislaw Ulam’s famous observation that the study of nonlinear physics is like the study of “non-elephant animals.” Antidisciplinary is all about the non-elephant animals.
I believe that by bringing together design and science we can produce a rigorous but flexible approach that will allow us to explore, understand and contribute to science in an antidisciplinary way.
In many ways, the cybernetics movement[2] was a model for what we are trying to do–allowing a convergence of new technologies to create a new movement that cuts across the disciplines. But it is also a warning: cybernetics became fragmented through over formalization and “disciplinarification.” As Stewart Brand recently reflected, cybernetics became more and more dense and academic, and as it matured it was “bored to death.” Perhaps we can design something that is both rigorous enough, engaging enough, and antidisciplinary enough not only to survive, but to thrive.
The kind of scholars we are looking for at the Media Lab are people who don’t fit in any existing discipline either because they are between–or simply beyond–traditional disciplines. I often say that if you can do what you want to do in any other lab or department, you should go do it there. Only come to the Media Lab if there is nowhere else for you to go. We are the new Salon des Refusés.
When I think about the “space” we’ve created, I like to think about a huge piece of paper that represents “all science.” The disciplines are little black dots on this paper. The massive amounts of white space between the dots represent antidisciplinary space. Many people would like to play in this white space, but there is very little funding for this, and it’s even harder to get a tenured positions without some sort of disciplinary anchor in one of the black dots.
Additionally, it appears increasingly difficult to tackle many of the interesting problems–as well as the “wicked problems”–through a traditional disciplinary approach. Unraveling the complexities of the human body is the perfect example. Our best chance for rapid breakthroughs should come through a collaborative “One Science.” But instead, we seem unable to move beyond “many sciences”–a complex mosaic of so many different disciplines that often we don’t recognize when we are looking at the same problem because our language is so different and our microscopes are set so differently.
With funding and people focused on the disciplines, it takes more and more effort and resources to make a unique contribution. While the space between and beyond the disciplines can be academically risky, it often has less competition; requires fewer resources to try promising, unorthodox approaches; and provides the potential to have tremendous impact by unlocking connections between existing disciplines that are not well connected. The Internet and the diminishing costs of computing, prototyping and manufacturing have diminished many of the costs of doing research as well.

A Prehistory of the Anti-Disciplinary: Cybernetics

Although the new technologies and tools diminishing costs driven by the Internet and Moore’s Law makes antidisciplinary work increasingly possible, it’s not exactly a new idea.
Driven less by the diminishing costs, but rather by a whole set of enabling technologies and tools, a similar movement was occurring in the 1940s and 1950s where a variety of fields began to converge. Applications from ballistic missile control to understanding how biological systems regulated movement brought engineers, designers, scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, philosophers, linguists, psychologists and thinkers from a variety of fields together to begin to understand systems and feedback loops as a way to both comprehend and design complex systems. This type of cross-disciplinary study of systems was termed “cybernetics.”
Although mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener and his book, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine is often what first comes to mind when when we think of cybernetics, much of “first-order cybernetics” was heavily in the domain of the engineers. (First-order cybernetics was about how one used feedback systems and feedback loops to control or regulate systems, and second-order cybernetics was more about self-adaptive complex systems and systems that could not to be controlled or were highly complex.)
Although they get less attention, there were also many philosophers, sociologists and cultural figures involved in cybernetics, such as Heinz von Foerster, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Gordon Pask, and Stewart Brand [3] who were more concerned with second-order cybernetics [4].
Some called second-order cybernetics the community of first-order systems. Second-order cybernetics was more about participant observers than objective observers/designers. For example, a first-order cybernetic system would be a thermostat and a second-order system would be the earth’s ecosystem. An engineer designs a thermostat as an object that they can understand, control and is for a user that they can talk to, but the ecosystem is something we live in as a participant, can’t control, and adapts to our actions. And beyond complexity and the impossibility of regulating such complex systems, by bringing the human into the system second-order cybernetics goes beyond the move from “objectivity” to “subjectivity” and makes the participants responsible for what they pay attention to and what they value. And if “cybernetics is the theory, design is the action.” (Ranulph Glanville)—for we are responsible for what we design.
While many of the origins and threads of cybernetics ran through MIT, by the time the Media Lab was established in 1985, the vibrant cybernetics movement had disappeared into a variety of applied disciplines. But it has left its mark: design, and in particular, “design thinking,” emerged and survives today as a practice that cuts across many of the disciplines that were touched by it.

Evolving Design

Design has become what many of us call a “suitcase word.” [5] It means so many different things that it almost doesn’t mean anything: you can call almost anything “design.” On the other hand, design encompasses many important ideas and practices, and thinking about the future of science in the context of design–as well as design in the context of science–is an interesting and fruitful endeavor.
Design has also evolved from the design of objects both physical and immaterial, to the design of systems, to the design of complex adaptive-systems. This evolution is shifting the role of designers; they are no longer the central planner, but rather participants within the systems they exist in. This is a fundamental shift–one that requires a new set of values.
Today, many designers work for companies or governments developing products and systems focused primarily on making sure that society works efficiently. However, the scope of these efforts are not designed to include–nor are they designed to care about–systems beyond our corporate or governmental needs. We’re moving into an era where the system boundaries are not as defined. These underrepresented systems, such as the microbial system and the environment, have suffered and still present significant challenges for designers. While these systems are self-adaptive, complex systems, our unintended effects on them will most likely cause unintended negative consequences for us.
MIT Professors Neri Oxman and Meejin Yoon teach a popular class called “Design Across Scales,” where they discuss design at scales ranging from the microbial to the astrophysical. While it is impossible for designers and scientists to predict the outcome of complex self-adaptive system, especially at all scales, it is possible for us to perceive, understand, and take responsibility for our intervention within each of these systems. Also, as a “participant” we can engage at each of these scales if we are aware of and able to use all of our lenses by being aware of the systems that we are in and being continuously preceptive. This would be much more of a design whose outcome we cannot fully control–more like giving birth to a child and influencing its development than designing a robot or a car.
An example of this kind of design is the work of MIT Professor Kevin Esvelt who describes himself as an evolutionary sculptor. He is working on ways of editing the genes of populations of organisms such as the rodent that carries Lyme disease and the mosquito that carries malaria to make them resistant to the pathogens. The specific technology - CRISPR gene drives - are a type of gene edit such that when carrier organisms released into the wild, all of their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring, and so on through the generations will inherit the same alteration, allowing us to essentially eliminate malaria, Lyme, and other vector-borne and parasitic diseases. Crucially, the edit is embedded into the population at large, rather than the individual organism. Therefore, his focus is not on the gene editing or the particular organism, but the whole ecosystem - including our health system, the biosphere, our society and its ability to think about these sorts of interventions. To be clear: part of what’s novel here is considering the effects of a design on all of the systems that touch it.

The End of the Artificial

Unlike the past where there was a clearer separation between those things that represented the artificial and those that represented the organic, the cultural and the natural, it appears that nature and the artificial are merging.
When the cybernetics movement began, the focus of science and engineering was on things like guiding a ballistic missile or controlling the temperature in an office. These problems were squarely in the man-made domain and were simple enough to apply the traditional divide-and-conquer method of scientific inquiry.
Science and engineering today, however, is focused on things like synthetic biology or artificial intelligence, where the problems are massively complex. These problems exceed our ability to stay within the domain of the artificial, and make it nearly impossible for us to divide them into existing disciplines. We are finding that we are more and more able to design and deploy directly into the domain of “nature” and in many ways “design” nature. Synthetic biology is obviously completely embedded in nature and is about our ability to “edit nature.” However, even artificial intelligence, which is in the digital versus natural realm, is developing its relationship to the study of the brain beyond merely a metaphorical one. We find that we must increasingly depend on nature to guide us through the complexity and the unknowability (with our current tools) that is our modern scientific world.
By picking up where cybernetics left off and by redirecting the development of modern design to the future of science, we believe that a new kind of design and a new kind of science may emerge, and in fact is already emerging.

Rethinking Academic Practice

MITx and edX are now helping the world by making lectures, knowledge, and skills available online to students everywhere in an organized way. The MIT Press, the Media Lab, and the MIT Libraries could serve a parallel role by creating a new model for academic interaction and collaboration, breaking down the artificial barriers dividing intellectual discourse. Our thinking is to create a vehicle for the exchange of ideas that allows all those working in the antidisciplinary space between and beyond the disciplines to come together in unexpected and exciting ways to challenge existing academic silos. Our aim is to create a new space that encourages everyone, not just academics, to come together to create a new platform for the 21st century: a new place, a new way of thinking, a new way of doing.
Much of academia revolves around publishing research to prestigious, peer-reviewed journals. Peer review usually consists of the influential members of your field reviewing your work and deciding whether it is important and unique. This architecture often leads to a dynamic where researchers focus more on proving the value of their research to a small number of experts in their own field than on taking the high-risk of an unconventional approach. This dynamic reinforces the cliché of academics: learning more and more about less and less. It causes a hyper-specialization where people in different areas have a very difficult time collaborating–or even communicating–with people in different fields.
Peer-reviewed academic papers were a very important system to build scientific knowledge before the Internet, but in many ways, they may be holding us back now. Stewart Brand likens academic papers to tombstones reading: “we thought this subject to death and this is where we buried it.” [6] I propose iteratively designing a new antidisciplinary journal with an open collaborative model of interaction in contrast to the structured and formal peer review system in order to tackle the most pressing and most interesting problems and ideas of our times and itself be an experiment.
The Media Lab has thrived 30 years without losing its relevance or its passion when most research labs that focus on a discipline have difficulty retaining relevance for so long. Why? I think it’s because our focus is on a way of thinking and doing rather than on a field of study or a particular language. I believe the key is a focus on developing a better system of design and a better theory of deployment and impact.
As participant designers, we focus on changing ourselves and the way we do things in order to change the world. With this new perspective, we will be able to tackle extremely important problems that don’t fit neatly into current academic systems: instead of designing other people’s systems, we will redesign our way of thinking and working and impact the world by impacting ourselves [7] [8].

References

[1]"Antidisciplinary". Joi Ito's Web. (2014): [http://joi.ito.com/weblog/2014/10/02/antidisciplinar.html]
[2] While there are many similarities between cybernetics and the antidisciplinary process we are working on, it was one of several inter/antidisciplinary movements that we are influenced by and connect to. Other movements include The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, Metabolism, and others.
[4]"How cybernetics connects computing, counterculture, and design". Hippie modernism: The struggle for utopia. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis MN. (2015): 1--12.
[5]"Unpacking Suitcase Words". (October 2009): [https://alexvermeer.com/unpacking-suitcase-words/] Cites Marvin Minsky's The Emotion Machine
[6]The irony that this feels a bit like an academic paper is not lost on me, but this is sort of like a viral gene therapy designed to penetrate the membrane of the academic system without trigger an immune response and then modify the host system from within.
[7]Non-duality is the ancient notion that “we are all one.” Duality is the idea that there is some objective observer or “self”. This relationship between the subject and the object and the idea that we can “be here now” is a spiritual solution to the problem of the observer trying to observe itself. Trying to understand thinking by thinking about thinking is very difficult, but as Seymour Papert said, “You can’t think seriously about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.”
[8]This is not to say that we won’t be making interventions in the world around us or deploying things externally. My point is that this journal and this new design process is something we should deploy on our self and to use and develop as our own tool and not try or feel a need to “sell it” to others, but be happy to share.
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Bill Welense 3/11/2016
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Selection made on Version 15
Design has also evolved from the design of objects both physical and immaterial, to the design of systems, to the design of complex adaptive-systems. This evolution is shifting the role of designers; they are no longer the central planner, but rather participants within the systems they exist in. This is a fundamental shift–one that requires a new set of values.
. This evolution is shifting the role of designers; they are no longer the central planner, but rather participants within the systems they exist in. This is a fundamental shift–one that requires a new set of values.
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Stewart Brand 2/9/2016
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"Design Science” was an obsession of Buckminster Fuller’. He sometimes called it “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science.” A primer of his views is here: https://bfi.org/design-science/primer
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Andrew Menzer 3/16/2016
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I think the science and design meet where engineering and economics combine. Industry has always been the most efficient means of diffusing advanced technologies across a specific population, especially as costs to produce said technologies go down. Moore’s Law, the Internet and cheap mobile hardware are a perfect example of this phenomenon.
The effects these (and other) innovations have on our world – namely their ability to empower individuals – drive new creative endeavours (art) and intellectual discourses (philosophy and political movements) that dictate the cultural zeitgesit of contemporary society.
This dynamic feedback loop is what second-order cybernetics was primarily concerned with
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Tim Brown 1/18/2016
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I like the idea of the anti-disciplinary journal and I wonder in what forms this might come to life? A journal of beginnings perhaps, not just endings, where expert crowd funding is used to encourage and sustain the most interesting experiments. Maybe future academic prowess is built not on citations but on connected experiments or flows of funding to the most interesting ideas.
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Tim Brown 1/18/2016
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I don’t pretend to understand all of your references to cybernetic systems but agree with the premise about complex adaptive systems and the changing role of the designer from planner to participant. There is more to talk about regarding the progression of scientists toward design and designers toward science. That is what I love about the Media Lab you create the conditions where both can happen. Designers can, if they choose ,participate in the science and scientists can use the mechanisms of design to pursue their explorations.
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Jeff Sussna 2/16/2016
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Ranulph Glanville probably did the best job of connecting cybernetics and design. Shortly before his death in 2014 he gave a wonderful talk called “How Design and Cybernetics Reflect Each Other” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTN_9mJIWNw
In this talk he explains the concept of circularity as being at the heart of cybernetics. IMHO circularity is central to designing, at least as we need to do it in our current society.
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Nikos Houssos 3/1/2016
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Although mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener and his book, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine is often what first comes to mind when when we think of cybernetics, much of “first-order cybernetics” was heavily in the domain of the engineers. (First-order cybernetics was about how one used feedback systems and feedback loops to control or regulate systems, and second-order cybernetics was more about self-adaptive complex systems and systems that could not to be controlled or were highly complex.)
First-order cybernetics was about how one used feedback systems and feedback loops to control or regulate systems, and second-order cybernetics was more about self-adaptive complex systems and systems that could not to be controlled or were highly complex
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Boris Anthony 2/25/2016
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I find this development fascinating as my own research over the last 5 years has indicated that what we call design is in the midst of another evolution. In the last ~200 years, it has gone from craft to discipline and is now starting to become a science in itself… the next stage being philosophy (pointed to by the ethical dilemmas people like Cameron Tonkinwise raises). Of course, design retains its craft and discipline tools, methods, processes and models, but is learning to engage research, experimentation, and collaboration, outside the bounds of mere commercial activity, “for the good of humanity”… here to echo Stewart’s evocation of Buckminster Fuller. I look forward to see where JoDS goes and hope to get a chance to engage with your team, @Joi.
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Danny Hillis 1/25/2016
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In many ways, the cybernetics movement[2] is a model for what we are trying to do–allowing a convergence of new technologies to create a new movement that cuts across the disciplines. But it is also a warning: cybernetics became fragmented through over formalization and “disciplinarification.” As Stewart Brand recently reflected, cybernetics became more and more dense and academic, and as it matured it was “bored to death.” Perhaps we can design something that is both rigorous enough, engaging enough, and antidisciplinary enough not only to survive, but to thrive.
cybernetics became more and more dense and academic, and as it matured it was “bored to death.”
In fact, Cycbernetis became a discipline. It produced some good aswers to broad questions, but then it became about those answers, rather than about the orginal questions.
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Michael Dila 1/20/2016
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Your intent to create a platform for antidisciplinary thinking and exploration is exciting: particularly in its suggestion of problems that sit in the places “between”; obscured by or invisible to existing disciplinary optics. It seems to me that setting the proper norms for interaction will be crucial to the success of your ambitions. Peer review, whatever its merits, tends toward narrowness (as you say), and the stance and tone of a lecture. Curating antidisciplinary conversations, I think, will be the editorial task set by the kind of journal you envision. This example of a conversation about digital books strikes me a useful and intructive one: https://medium.com/message/the-pickle-a-conversation-about-making-digital-books-8242360378e4#.9zxngkev1
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Richard Dwinell 3/11/2016
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As participant designers, we focus on changing ourselves and the way we do things in order to change the world. With this new perspective, we will be able to tackle extremely important problems that don’t fit neatly into current academic systems: instead of designing other people’s systems, we will redesign our way of thinking and working and impact the world by impacting ourselves [7] [8].
As participant designers, we focus on changing ourselves and the way we do things in order to change the world.
Hey didn’t Gandhi say that "Be the change you wish to see in the world." I hope that I didn’t miss all the important forms and functions of this article (the possibility is high) but when re-reading the beginning and end ( or maybe opposite sides of a cycle) of the article, I felt first (or mostly) set within a nonlinear system of explaination. Hearing tales of the entangled designers staking claim to the flat open white of non-elephant …complexities. I would imagine, the shoulders of giants usually have wide tracks of open spaces (for others to stand on). I see in the article the principle target of “design” being the orchestration and/or re-think of process and /or systems, inclusive of expression (thankfully). Our rate of change is always changing. The directions of change is increasingly changing. The age of data is nonlinear. We act on the data. Our actions create more data - continuously preceptive focus or design gives us …(return to top)
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Joichi Ito 3/20/2016
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I’ve been thinking a lot about Gandhi and hadn’t through to tie him into this article. I’ve been thinking about him more in the context of disobedience - a key force of change. I googled around and found the original Gandhi quote: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
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Stewart Brand 2/9/2016
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A format design comment: Gray type on a white background is a pain to read. Legibility counts.
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Eric Maize 2/25/2016
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+1, especially gray type in a super light-weight font…
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Danny Hillis 1/25/2016
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Unlike the past where there was a clearer separation between those things that represented the artificial and those that represented the organic, the cultural and the natural, it appears that nature and the artificial are merging.
Unlike the past where there was a clearer separation between those things that represented the artificial and those that represented the organic, the cultural and the natural, it appears that nature and the artificial are merging.
This is what I have been calling The Entanglement, that is, the entaglement of nature and technology so that the distintion becomes increasingly meaningless.
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Stewart Brand 2/9/2016
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Agreed. I ended my WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE book with the line: “What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable. We live one life.”
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Dan Lockton 1/18/2016
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Our best chance for rapid breakthroughs should come through a collaborative “One Science.” But instead, we seem unable to move beyond “many sciences”–a complex mosaic of so many different disciplines that often we don’t recognize when we are looking at the same problem because our language is so different and our microscopes are set so differently. unable to move beyond “many sciences”–a complex mosaic of so many different disciplines that often we don’t recognize when we are looking at the same problem because our language is so different and our microscopes are set so differently.
Our best chance for rapid breakthroughs should come through a collaborative “One Science.” But instead, we seem unable to move beyond “many sciences”–a complex mosaic of so many different disciplines that often we don’t recognize when we are looking at the same problem because our language is so different and our microscopes are set so differently.
Do you think much of the strength of this antidisciplinarity comes from this complex mosaic? i.e. the variety of being able to deal with the world in different ways, and the recognition that these are ways of knowing which each have their advantages at different scales and in different contexts? Making connections between the disciplines and ways of thinking, and understanding, shifting into and using each other’s perspectives can be adaptive, but trying to wrap them together too tightly might end up removing the very thing which makes the approach successful in the first place.
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Joichi Ito 1/30/2016
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That’s an interesting and good point. I think we still need the disciplines and their rigor. I think language defines and helps us think, but it also limits us. I think that being able to move between the sciences as well as sometime “go meta” and move beyond the constraints of their languages is important too. Probably an AND not and OR.
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Dan Lockton 1/31/2016
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Thanks Joi. Yes, definitely AND. I think even having an organisation like the Media Lab that explicitly recognises the value of depth and breadth, and has an explicit aim of enabling “going meta”, is very valuable. There aren’t many places that do this, or are able to attract/support the right mix of people.
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Tim Brown 1/18/2016
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I suppose this is obvious, but experimentation (in the methodological sense) is shared by both design and science as a principle tool for discovery. Is this true for engineering and art?
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Adam Fulford 3/20/2016
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“As participant designers, we focus on changing ourselves and the way we do things in order to change the world.”
I’ve found that Kanji characters, as used in Japan, are helpful for organising thought in this area.
The only time available for action is “now”. One thing we do “now” can be illustrated using three simple characters: tree (木), eye (目) and heart (心). A tree is anything observable. The mind’s eye scrutinises the tree for evidence of value. The heart responds to a perception of value in the observed object. An urge (想) is created. This is the “being” layer of behaviour.
Movement in the direction of perceived value creates a path (道: “head in motion”). Generally, we want to get where we’re going quickly and effortlessly. That would be “good”. Tools and guidance can help. So, using the “being” mechanism, we also seek out “good” tools (道具: path items) and guidance (道徳: path merits; morality). This is the “doing” layer of behaviour. Note that “good” is defined solely in terms of the urge we are trying to satisfy.
One quintessential human tool, and the quintessential medium for guidance, is language. In the process of language acquisition, in special circumstances in which shared attention is a crucial precondition, the heart moves in the direction of sound (音) to create meaning (意: sound + heart). Then the heart moves in the direction of meaning to create memory (憶: meaning + heart). This is the “knowing” layer of behaviour. Note that no guidance is possible without reference to shared memory.
The three layers of behaviour influence each other and the heart is often a downright nuisance, but this framework may serve as a “good tool” for those striving to design a “better” world, one in which (in terms of “being”) we seek “good guidance” by harnessing the power of “a mind for the other”, an idea that is deeply ingrained in traditional Japanese culture.
In fact, the more skilfully we apply “a mind for the other”, the closer we will get to an objective perception of value, the better will be our selection of objectives, tools and guidance, and the smoother will be our movement towards a “better” future.
If you perceive any value at all in the “tree” outlined above, you may find yourself moving in the direction of viewing a recent PechaKucha presentation that I made, where one of the objectively “bad” features was the loudness of my voice:
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Beth Anderson 3/12/2016
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I am delighted to find this journal, and in particular, this article! We have been creating 3D animations to illuminate the complexities of biological systems for the better part of two decades, but for a long time, it was an uphill road. I found a wonderful book - “Fields of Influence - Conjunctions of Artists and Scientists 1815-1860” a collection of essays on the early cross pollination between art and science when the Royal Society and the Royal Academy shared space in Somerset House in London, and the bifurcation that began when the Royal Academy moved out in 1837. And though there’s a lot of noise in the world about peoples’ distrust of science, I also get the feeling that more are beginning to see the value in the cross pollination of ideas from unexpected sources. - Beth Anderson
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EVAN FREEDMAN 3/11/2016
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The kind of scholars we are looking for at the Media Lab are people who don’t fit in any existing discipline either because they are between–or simply beyond–traditional disciplines. I often say that if you can do what you want to do in any other lab or department, you should go do it there. Only come to the Media Lab if there is nowhere else for you to go. We are the new Salon des Refusés.
. I often say that if you can do what you want to do in any other lab or department, you should go do it there. Only come to the Media Lab if there is nowhere else for you to go. We are the new Salon des Refusés.
What a beautiful way to attract creative, progressive thinkers.
I really wish I could use a word other than creative here (I thought about iconoclastic but that seemed to confrontational).
That said, Antidisciplinarian has just a great subversive ring to it!
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Paola Antonelli 1/12/2016
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Regarding design, its role in devising adaptive systems, and efficiency: This becomes really huge, but for some–myself included–an effort towards formal elegance is necessary for a planning exercise to be considered design. That formal elegance could be impalpable, as for instance in the design of a scent, but it needs to be acknowledged as a tension within the process. The outcome of that effort can be a failure, but the effort needs to be there. I other words, I consider the Interstate Highway System a design project, while the Keystone Pipeline is not, even though they are both systems – Paola Antonelli
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Michael Dila 1/20/2016
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I am not sure precisely what you mean by formal elegance. It sounds like an epistemological aesthetic for maths or something. In any case, it seems like you are trying to make an important distinction between projects like the Interstate system and the Keystone pipeline and I’d like to undersatnd what it is.
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Boris Anthony 3/14/2016
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Something along the lines of R. Buckminster Fuller’s “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” came to mind reading your comment, Ms. Antonelli. Though I imagine you mean a more explicit effort must be made to reach an aesthetic quality in order to be considered design (whereas some might be happy to say “this is design with good aesthetic, and that is design with bad aesthetic”).
So the question is: is a notion of aesthetics (“formal elegance”) contained within a definition of design, or not? And further: is it time to formulate a new definition of design? I believe this is part of what is happening currently, as mentioned above.
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Francesco Bertelli 2/26/2016
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Best comment.
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Bill Welense 3/11/2016
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As I have written previously[1], one of the first words that I learned when I joined the Media Lab in 2011 was “antidisciplinary.” It was listed as a requirement in an ad seeking applicants for a new faculty position. Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. But antidisciplinary is something very different; it’s about working in spaces that simply do not fit into any existing academic discipline–a specific field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods.
Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. But antidisciplinary is something very different; it’s about working in spaces that simply do not fit into any existing academic discipline
Antidisciplinary is a word that my mind has been searching for for quite some time. It’s like that moment when something is on the tip fo your toungue, your mind knows the answer, but can’t think of the word.
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Mike Stringer 2/29/2016
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MIT Professors Neri Oxman and Meejin Yoon teach a popular class called “Design Across Scales,” where they discuss design at scales ranging from the microbial to the astrophysical. While it is impossible for designers and scientists to predict the outcome of complex self-adaptive system, especially at all scales, it is possible for us to perceive, understand, and take responsibility for our intervention within each of these systems. Also, as a “participant” we can engage at each of these scales if we are aware of and able to use all of our lenses by being aware of the systems that we are in and being continuously preceptive. This would be much more of a design whose outcome we cannot fully control–more like giving birth to a child and influencing its development than designing a robot or a car.
This would be much more of a design whose outcome we cannot fully control–more like giving birth to a child and influencing its development than designing a robot or a car.
I think this is a key point! Designing complex adaptive systems will likely involve designing rules or algorithms for participants rather than directly designing outcomes. While still in their infancy, many of the concepts from “generative design” (e.g. Generative Design or Dynamic Identities) and “generative science” (e.g. Generative Social Science) will be pertinent for designers of complex adaptive systems.
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Tim Brown 1/18/2016
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The growth of AI and data networks might liberate designers and scientists to be more ‘anti-disciplinary’ because the machines can take care of the many forms of expertise we need to tackle problems at the complex systems level. I’m guessing this is obvious to you but my sense that both in science and design the current trend is toward ever greater specialization of the individual in order to compete with the efficiency of the machine. Thank goodness the Media Lab stands for the opposite.
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Joichi Ito 1/18/2016
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I think the role of AI in research is very interesting. Hiroaki Kitano and others are trying to design AI systems to manage and possibly even come up with questions for research. English language publishing is a “lossy” way of conveying the complexity and detail of many experiments including the data, the code that was run, the exact orientation of the molecules, etc. The sheer volume of research results is also trans-human-reable. An interesting part of the design of AI systems is the interface between the human systems and the machine systems. I think “Human in the Loop” machine learning is an extremely important area of work that we’d like to focus on at the Media Lab and I do think the role of AI in tackling problems at the complex systems level is key.
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joanna boehnert 5/23/2016
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Unlike the past where there was a clearer separation between those things that represented the artificial and those that represented the organic, the cultural and the natural, it appears that nature and the artificial are merging.
Unlike the past where there was a clearer separation between those things that represented the artificial and those that represented the organic, the cultural and the natural, it appears that nature and the artificial are merging.
Design theory needs to distinguish between life-sustaining and life-destroying entanglements. The natural and the artificial are distinct from one another as one is the context of the other. This coalescing of the natural and the artificial is not a benign claim.
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Raman Agrawalla 4/15/2016
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Antidisciplinary seems to be more profound than other concepts, including ‘transdidciplinary’; i feel. Dr. Raman Agrawalla
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Alex Cheek 3/22/2016
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On Professor Neri Oxman’s Krebs Cycle of Creativity of the relationship between the disciplines, design and science are opposite one another on the circle, and the output of one is not the input of the other as is often the case of engineering and design or science and engineering. I believe that by making a “lens” and a fusion of design and science, we can fundamentally advance both. This connection includes both the science of design and the design of science, as well as the dynamic relationship between these two activities.
I believe that by making a “lens” and a fusion of design and science, we can fundamentally advance both.
Joi, do you have a way of describing what it would mean to advance design?
Not being a scientist, science seems to have a telos of expansion of knowledge towards the elusive theory of everything. Design lacks that clear trajectory, and without it, advancement is trickier to define. Herb Simon’s definition of design, is my best way into that question, (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1511391):
Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.
From this perspective, advancing design could be about better devised “courses of action,” more “preferred situations,” or both!
The rest of the quote, from the same opening paragraph of The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial, unpacks this definition and takes us deeper:
Design so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from sciences. Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design.
With this in mind, we might think of advancing design as advancing “the professions” to develop better “courses of action,” leading to more “preferred situations.” This feels suitably antidisciplinary and participatory. As a service designer in a financial services organisation, this feels very familiar as I am constantly encouraging professionals like actuaries, lawyers, investment experts and bankers to consider the whole situation they are influencing and to strive to change them for the better.
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Franz Bruckhoff 3/16/2016
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The concept of antidisciplinary space is fascinating. It allows us to think the unthinkable and achieve the impossible. I often think of it as the process of “collecting and connecting the dots”, which involves walking and exploring the white space.
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Paul T. Kidd 3/14/2016
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When I think about the “space” we’ve created, I like to think about a huge piece of paper that represents “all science.” The disciplines are little black dots on this paper. The massive amounts of white space between the dots represent antidisciplinary space. Many people would like to play in this white space, but there is very little funding for this, and it’s even harder to get a tenured positions without some sort of disciplinary anchor in one of the black dots.
The disciplines are little black dots on this paper. The massive amounts of white space between the dots represent antidisciplinary space.
This is similar to how I perceived the way disciplinary knowledge is organised with vast open and unexplored prairies lying between the disciplinary settlements. Back in the mid 80s I wanted to pursue my academic career by exploring these ‘spaces between spaces’ as I now call them. This was not possible so I left academia and pursued the matter through other means, only then, I encountered a cognitive bias that goes along the lines “free people (academics) think, slaves (people who are not academics) work.” Only it seems very much to me that the free people have stopped thinking because they have become institutionalised, while the slaves are now doing the thinking. I believe we are in a situation like the one Arthur Koestler describes in his book The Sleepwalkers - a divide, between an older science represented by Aristotelian scholasticism and a new science which became known as the science of The Enlightenment. Only now the divide is between the old science of The Enlightenment and a new science that has yet to be defined. A key point however is that this new science will not be shaped only by Western/European thinking, which is still deeply influenced by Abrahamic thought, but by a universal culture that will also encompass the Taoist world of China and other cultures of the East. So it is good to see that a venue has been established for having conversations and discussing the transformation of the old science into something new. I do not however expect to see the ‘olden ones’ putting up the while flag very soon!
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Gabriel Figueiredo 3/11/2016
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Have you seen Flaviano Celaschi’s diagram? It’s (literally) design-centric, but it has a different take on the deal between “Design vs Science” and “Design as a Suitcase Word” you talk about.
You can download his paper “Design as a Mediator Between Areas of Knowledge” here: http://www.flavianocelaschi.it/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/02_mediatoresaperi_fc_eng_red1.doc
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john hessler 3/10/2016
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This is a great idea…truly a need for this kind of journal. In my own work on the history of computing science and design are never far apart. http://blogs.loc.gov/maps/2016/03/computing-space-vi-how-to-read-marble-and-dacey/
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Timothy Scholl 2/25/2016
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Oxman’s cycle is an interesting starting point, being a 2D representation. I feel like you touch on the limitations of thinking about Design and Science in this way, and wonder about the connection between Scientific Method and Design Process and how they might show us another way to represent the relationship between the two. What are the ideas present within those disciplines that are unique?How can those traits be best used to augment the other discipline, and vice versa?
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Raymond Pirouz 2/11/2016
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I propose iteratively designing a new antidisciplinary journal with an open collaborative model of interaction in contrast to the structured and formal peer review system in order to tackle the most pressing and most interesting problems and ideas of our times and itself be an experiment.
It’s a great idea and one that can succeed so long as ‘prestige’ is associated with the journal, no matter how experimental. No academic I know will admit this but they are ‘consumers’ of knowledge for whom ‘institutional brand’ is an extremely poweful signal that can immediately validate or discredit an initiative such as you suggest. Can your idea succeed if originating from a lowly state university? No. You are in a unique position to push the envelope so I say ‘go to town’.
As it relates to ‘evolving design’ however, because – as you suggest – it has become one of those suitcase words (no thanks to the unfortunate Design Thinking meme) I belive strongly that we need to start at the beginning by understanding it in the context of where we are now (rather than where we may have been a decade or two ago in terms of our understanding of the discipline as such). In that spirit, might I offer a definition I’ve crafted over some years as a contribution of sorts, even if it only wets the appetite: http://soc.raymondpirouz.com/2016/02/design-and-purpose/
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Peter Hourdequin 4/23/2016
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I am an academic of sorts: a language teacher in a university setting. I do research that is mostly focused on understanding and improving practice. This once would have meant a focus on either teaching or learning practice, or both, but for me it now means focusing on the nature of my context, the physical and virtual activity spaces that exist as affordances for learning in my institutional setting and beyond.
For me, though many of the big-name journals in our field contribute useful theoretical insights, they rarely narrate how these are implemented in locally (culturally, historically) situated contexts. By virtue of their architecture and target audience (global academia) they are not capable of doing this. We have local (special interest group) journals, but most of these define their scope in terms set by the theoreticians who write in the prestigious journals. Doing this narrows the terms that can be used to describe local practice to those acceptable by a given “special interest group” (for example, “task-based language teaching.” But what is needed is a space for intelligent conversations around practices in similar contexts, not practices within the lines of theoretical/conceptual frameworks defined elsewhere.
I have thus taken the idea of producing an iteration of this type of journal to a few colleagues and have received responses similar to Raymond’s: its fine for MIT because they have prestige, but would this be recognized as legitimate by our institutions? To me though, this is an unnecessarily passive position. It assigns agency to external forces that only exist if we let them. The argument I try to make is that if we can gather a community of committed collaborators-- irrespective of their institution’s prestige–and design a space for the kind of discussions that are meaningful for us as academic practitioners, that space will have legitimacy. It may help to get some ‘big names’ on board to lend the space (journal) legitimacy (and draw a larger audience) in the eyes of our institutions, but if the scope of the space is well-conceived and articulated in line with local needs, I tend to think that there are many prestigious academics out there who would lend such projects the gravity of their names. The challenge is convincing local academics to take this step towards collaboration and community rather than continuing their painstaking efforts to get published in journals that exist in an imagined intellectual “center” (while believing they are writing from a periphery). It is about convincing people to believe that the language we speak to each other about our local teaching and research practices can have legitimacy if we choose to give that legitimacy to each other.
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