In 1418, the city of Florence held a competition to build a dome over the cathedral. The octagonal dome by Filippo Brunelleschi made history as the first to be built without a temporary support frame. Today it is still the largest brick dome in the world.
Brunelleschi, however, was not trained as an architect or builder, but as a goldsmith. He also wrote poetry, designed sets for theatrical performances and led pioneering optical and geometric experiments that led to the development of linear perspective. At the age of 39, he even opened his own school where he taught mathematics, geometry and art.
The Renaissance was a period of intense cross-fertilization in which artists such as Brunelleschi worked as engineers and vice versa. Known as “Renaissance Men”, others, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Leon Battista Alberti, effortlessly bridged painting, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, astronomy and more, resulting in a dynamic flow of intellectual, artistic and literary activity.
Now, a new book argues that a similar mindset can be nurtured today, except it’s not about a Renaissance man, but a “Renaissance team.” The Nexus argues that the complex problems of our generation can only be solved when art, technology and science come together as they did during the Renaissance.
The Nexus was written by Julio Mario Ottino, a scientific researcher and artist, and Bruce Mau, a celebrated graphic designer whose extensive portfolio included redesigning the holy city of Mecca, rebranding Guatemala and starting the Massive Change Network, a design consultancy he co-founded. 2010 with his wife, Bisi Williams. Mau likes to think big, and in this book he wants you to forget about the right-brain versus left-brain myth and embrace thinking about the whole brain.
I recently sat with Mau, who joined me from his book-filled Chicago office, to talk about how the idea for… The Nexus was born, how modern companies and organizations can promote whole-brain thinking, and how important design is to that process.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
My first comment is about the title of the book and the fact that the word is missing design† I wonder if that’s because design itself is at the intersection of art, technology and science?
Yes, the project, for me, really started when I found this lovely little magazine [trans | formation]† It was edited in the 1950s by this man named Harry Holtzman, and he says, “transformation confirms that art, science and technology are interacting components of the total human enterprise. But today they are too often treated as if they were cultural isolates.” and mutually hostile.”
I read it and I thought, Oh my god this is exactly what I’m thinking† So that started the conversation and we realized that design is actually the daily practice that brings those worlds back together.
did the talking design or what it stands for, exists even in the Renaissance? Or did it come about precisely because we needed a methodology to bring them together when they broke up?
In the Renaissance it was the custom to be multidimensional, partly because domains themselves were modestly scaled. You could master everything we knew about anatomy because we didn’t know much. While the prospect of mastering more than one field is not plausible these days. Even mastering one field is a huge challenge, and it increases exponentially. From almost all of history, we didn’t know any other planet in the universe, and now we know thousands of them.
But pretty soon, especially with the industrial revolution, this one [domains] begin to drift apart in their own culture and have an increasingly specific and exclusive language, which results in the ostracism of the outsider. You have to be proficient and trained in the language and the knowledge, and now we have this situation where the knowledge in one domain is often not accessible to the other.
The problems we have are not technological problems, and they are not scientific problems, they are… [problems like] climate change. And climate change will not be solved by technology and science. We need art, we need emotion to understand how to reach and inspire people to change, talk to them about new possibilities and show them other worlds. And that will get to the nexus; it will come from people who are able to really craft that intersection — and that intersection is the design.
Right. We have solved other problems for centuries, but perhaps we have reached a critical mass, a time when it is no longer enough for these individual practices to work together?
Yes, we now have a new set of what I call success problems. If we had failed more often, we would have had fewer problems. There would only be a billion people on the planet. We got rid of smallpox and saved hundreds of millions of lives. But all those people are alive now, they need food, they need shelter.
Now we have problems like climate change. We have earned a new class of problems that are of a higher order of complexity and do not fit into the classic categories. And you have to bring teams of people. We’ve developed a method that we call the Renaissance team: you can’t have a Renaissance person anymore, the idea that I could find someone who could do that is really unbelievable. But you can have a Renaissance team.
Going back in history, you write that Florence was the epitome of the nexus at the time. What made Florence such a perfect place for all these ghosts to gather?
In part, it was a culture of leadership and competition. You had a very intense competition between the cities. If you were a glass blower in Murano then, if you tried to leave, they would cut off your hands. They didn’t want you to show anyone how to do it, so leaving with the knowledge was a capital offence.
The patronage of the day was all meant to create excellence and competition and to win over the other cities. So you wanted to get the best scientists, the best artists, the best engineers in your city to beat the other cities. And in the case of Florence you had the Medici [family]† They had an incredible dedication to art, culture, science – they funded everything.
So you get this incredible culture, where if you take Galileo out of Florence, he probably won’t happen. That’s what a nexus culture produces. It’s like, if you want to be in technology and you go to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, there’s going to be the best technologists from all over the world. You don’t get that from Poughkeepsie.
But there’s a pretty big flip side to that coin when it comes to Silicon Valley, so how can we recreate Florence without ending up with another Silicon Valley?
If you look around you, in America, you see that cities are competing with each other and producing culture, art museums, galleries, art biennials. They build a place where people want to be. It’s a war for talent and cities compete on that basis.
So you’re saying Silicon Valley doesn’t have that? Did it lean too much on technology and too little on art and culture?
It doesn’t, I’d say.
The book explains in great detail the benefits of the ‘nexus’, but what is your view on how to get there?
I think education is the most important. Naming it and actually helping people understand that this is a thing is an important step. And give people a roadmap and show them what’s happening.
I worked with Julio to help launch whole brain technology at Northwestern. It’s a completely different way of thinking about technology. When I moved to Chicago, Julio made me a fellow at Northwestern, and I said, “Julio, I don’t know anything about engineering. Shouldn’t I get an engineering degree first?” And he said, ‘No, no, you don’t have to be like us. We must be like you.”
It took me a while to understand what he was talking about, but eventually I remember him explaining it. He said: “If I asked a conventional engineer to make a bridge, he would ask, how thin can I make it? Efficiency, that’s what the classical engineer is really focused on. If I ask you for a ”To make a bridge, the question is: why do you want a bridge? Maybe a boat would be nicer, maybe we shouldn’t have a bridge.”
We need the “why” question in our practice. Let’s take a step back and say, why are we doing that? And once you start thinking like that, it’s really a balance between analysis and creativity. And to be great now you need both things, you need left brain and right brain, you need a nexus mind.
So of course education can be a good platform for this kind of thinking, but I wonder if companies and organizations can play a similar role?
I think they have a chance to really bring these worlds together. If you take Apple away, and you take the beauty out of Apple, you’re left with a pretty good tech company that you’ve never heard of and wouldn’t affect anyone. You put art, science and technology together and you have Apple, and it changes the world. The fact that their products say “designed in California” is a nexus thing to say. It’s not the manufacturing that matters, it’s the creative practice that brought this about.
So how would you define the state of affairs today? Are we heading for a Renaissance 2.0?
More people are involved in the nexus than ever before. More people have access to the opportunity this promises than at any time in human history. And it allows us to do things that would have been unimaginable for most of history. When you consider when COVID happened, within weeks there were over 100 teams from all over the world [working on vaccines]† Scientists, technologists, designers, communicators, brands, investors, they all faced the challenge and took it and tried to solve it, and several succeeded.
That’s the new world, and I find it really terrifying that we don’t know anything [the potential of the nexus] and that we don’t love it and understand how important it is. When we started the Massive Change Network, we spent years researching to really understand what we are now capable of and how our design capacity has expanded. Through that process, we met the people who got the smallpox off the face of the earth; one of the most important leaders was a man named Larry Brilliant.
They vaccinated billions of people to get that result. We know almost nothing about Larry Brilliant and we know everything about Lady Gaga. And Lady Gaga is brilliant, but Larry Brilliant is much more brilliant. So I’m doing everything I can to show people how great we really are, and this is what we’re capable of.