Neri Oxman’s perception of technology, engineer, design and art

Neri Oxman, MIT media lab professor

The first time when I watched Abstract, A Netflix documentary about art and design, I was so impressed by a metaphor used by Neri Oxman, an extraordinary MIT media lab professor.

She described that

“The relationship between science, engineering, design and art is just like a clock, where you constantly shifting and moving from one domain to another, and the input for one domain becomes the output for another. Science converts information into knowledge, engineer converts knowledge into utility, design converts utility into culture behavior and context, and art converts the culture behavior and question our perception of the world. And when art meet science, it’s the Cinderella moment in the 12 o’clock.”

“There is a myth that Picasso and Einstein met in Paris in 1904. They were both asking question about space and time, one expressed himself through painting and sculpture, and the other through a mathematical theorem.

Einstein once said: If I was not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.

“Art is for expression, science is for exploration, engineering is for invention, and design is for communication.

As our society develop to be more segmented, people in each segmentation tend to think they only need to be sophisticated in their own areas. What’s more, they think their segmentations are more important than the others. These biases are causing isolation and arrogance, which prevent us from connecting the dots of our world.

“Some of the first scientists would be considered artist today, Darwin, Davinci, Prometheus… While they were visualizing their concepts, they were also expressing their scientific knowledge.”

There are a lot of moments that we see splendid beauty in ‘Science world’, like space pictures taken by satellites, or the micro world through microscope lenses.

When MIT media lab announce its 3D print clear glass, I was a design student at school, it was so inspiring and thrilling. Because often time we need to think about our design solutions under constraints. Knowledge has been passed to us that glass can only be ‘blowed’ into certain shapes.

However, with this revolution of making, we are able to create glass objects that are different than ever before, thus unlock a variety of opportunities for innovations.

Silk has been used by human-being for thousands of years.

Probably a lot of people are not clear about how do we get the silk from silkworms. When I was a kid, I observed the whole process of silk making at a little town in Yunan Province, China.

Thousands of Cocoons were boiled in hot water. The silkworm were killed to prevent destroying the cocoons when they were mature and ready to escape. When Cocoons got picked up from water, thousands of dead body of silkworms were left in the water. Human being don’t cherish life like worms when we want things from them for the sake of our own life.

Instead of killing to get what we need, Neri’s lab explored a new way which invites thousands of silkworms to built a huge silk object within the structure designed by humans. So this new approach of cohabiting and co-fabricating theoretically reduce the sacrifice of silkworms. Although I suspect if silkworms can get mature within this human-designed cocoon, this is still a meaningful movement of respecting nature through innovation.

As a designer who has been in industry for a few years, I always focus on solving problems with realistic solutions. Because I’ve seen too many out-of-box-thinking concepts excited people in the beginning but never ended anywhere. Thus they are still beautiful dreams in people’s mind rather than things that can truly improve people’s life.

I understand the improvements are usually incremental, but I hope myself, and the whole industry don’t neglect the experiments of innovation through bridging the gaps between science, engineer, design and art.

I hope we can see more and more Cinderella moments happened in 12 o’clock that brings miracles to our world, but can last longer until the next revolution.



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