Grounded in theory and demonstrated in practice, the previous four lessons informed the model and supported its development as an idea incubator, conversation starter, career changer, and creator of cascading impact. As the program’s conclusion drew near, the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) Oversight Committee strongly encouraged experimentation with strategies that would embrace the fusion of NAKFI’s past successes with current changes taking place in the conduct of science, engineering, and medicine. How can we harness the best talent to address the dynamic and unconfined nature of 21st-century challenges? How can we reach new audiences by inviting a broader perspective into the conversation for co-discovery and the creation of imaginative solutions? NAKFI’s response to this directive led to the program’s final evolution and the fifth lesson.
This lesson will be explored in three parts:
- Creative Destruction at the Macro Level: Welcoming Arts and Design Disciplines
- Creative Destruction at the Micro Level: Transformation of Process
- The Impact of the Transformation on NAKFI and Its Participants
“I have a feeling that I am sitting at a campfire, late at night and the embers are slowly going out. I can hear the sounds at the edge of the light, just beyond view, but I don’t know what they are or what they mean.”
—CEO of Fortune 100 Company quoted in Creative Destruction by Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan, 2001
Creative destruction occurs when an organization or in this case, a program, is intentionally redesigned in every way. The assumption of continuity is replaced by embracing the challenge and opportunity of discontinuity where no one takes for granted that what worked in the past will be effective in the future.
There were multiple forces operating in 2015 that supported a shift in NAKFI’s focus and untimely led to its creative destruction. First, the 10-year review provided documentation of the program’s success, creating confidence in the model. Second, the planned end of the program was on the horizon, which naturally brought in a third force: considering the future of the program beyond its 15 years. Interest grew in adapting the Futures Model to test a new paradigm for how people conduct science and the processes by which they interact. Wondering what the sounds were at the edge of the dimming light stimulated the most considerable program innovations since NAKFI’s inception and fortified its relevance for the future.
To capitalize on this unique opportunity, NAKFI looked to the past, present, and future. It sparked curiosity about how the reunification of the arts, humanities, and science in the context of interdisciplinary research might contribute to a new paradigm. How might a cross-professional and interdisciplinary group of creative practitioners in art, design, science, engineering, and medicine not only influence the Futures Model, but also:
- stimulate a renaissance of innovation that solves real-world problems;
- reveal how art–science collaborations can engage the public and other scientists and encourage discourse in important issues;
- engage with aesthetic experience to stimulate creativity and innovation;
- create concrete projects that can (and ultimately do) transcend the Futures Conferences and lead to at least one of four kinds of impact: educational, cultural, social, and scientific; and
- impact the program’s visibility with internal and external audiences.
The Renaissance has been described as an “integrative period” of unified knowledge—a time during which art and science were one. Homo Universalis, or polymaths, embraced a proficient understanding of art, architecture, science, and engineering, leading to a period of wondrous discovery. A shift from integration to specialization occurred over time, which some presume has separated the domains of knowledge and experience and contributed to distinct cultures.
“Have the cultures really become distinct? There are multiple examples of collaborations ranging from American painter Abbot Thayer’s invention of camouflage to composer George Antheil and actress Hedy Lamarr’s collaboration that led to the invention of “frequency hopping”—the encryption technology on cell phones that helps to prevent messages from being intercepted. Stents used to treat aortic aneurysms were designed using the principles of origami and Kenneth Snelson’s tensegrity sculptures have created a new form of engineering and have helped biologists explain the shapes of cells.” (From the 2015 Futures Conference description)
Originally conceived as a theme on the edge of the “art–science interface,” it quickly became clear that the difference between the 2015 conference and previous ones was related to process rather than theme: How will incorporating artists, designers, and humanists into a discussion at any “frontier” of science, engineering, and medicine affect NAKFI’s impact and ability to promote scientific innovation? The hypothesis was that infusing art and design into every aspect of the NAKFI conference would engage new audiences, strengthen its ability to promote scientific innovation, broaden NAKFI’s impact, and evolve the model to secure its relevance to the scientific endeavor for years to come.
The call for input on the 2015 Futures Conference topic Art, Design and Science, Engineering and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation, Realization suggested that the reunification of the arts, sciences, and humanities presented opportunities, challenges, and risks analogous to the conversation about interdisciplinary research when NAKFI was conceived in the early 2000s. In addition to great enthusiasm from the experts who provided input, there was general agreement that every frontier of human inquiry is art–science-based in nature in that intuition and imagination are
equal partners to deduction and precision. This thinking centered NAKFI’s approach to how art, design, science, engineering, and medicine could meet to serve as partners in innovation rather than be concerned with whether they should be fully integrated.
A record number of researchers and other creative practitioners applied to attend the 2015 Futures Conference Art, Design and Science, Engineering and Medicine Frontier Collaborations—more than 400 in total. On the applicant survey, 93% strongly agreed that “there is potential for collaboration between people from disciplines as diverse as art, design, engineering, science, and medicine to achieve meaningful ends they could not achieve if they worked alone.” Applicants were also clear where they believed the greatest potential outcome for collaboration across these disciplines might be found. The answers echoed the same bold vision behind the proposal to create NAKFI back in 2003.
In the words of 2015–2016 applicants:
“I think the arts are greater able to introduce empathy into the equation. Science, engineering, and medicine are able to address problems, but without an understanding of human suffering and the emotions that motivate us, the best science in the world will not change the world.”
“Science can inspire creativity and art can create new scientific thoughts.”
“The greatest potential outcome of more interdisciplinary collaboration—especially between art and science—is the democratization of knowledge: a world where science and medical research no longer belongs to just those who are good at math, but everyone.”
“This will have been a success if it surfaces problems that keep scientists up at night.”
“If we knew this answer there’d be less motivation to gather at all! The openness of the experiment, and the unpredictability of outcomes from the interdisciplinary interactions, is what is so exciting. This is the perfect way to approach the unknown—by encouraging the fortuitous, the unexpected, the serendipitous.”
“The potential to change the questions we ask.”
“Insights and methods that leap ahead of the traditional incremental research and knowledge pipeline—this combination brings us back to the kinds of impact we could make…. Integrating arts and design will take us to where we can make huge leaps in knowledge and applying that knowledge for solutions.”
“I foresee such interdisciplinary work being able to uniquely address both raising awareness and creating solutions to the vast ecological challenges facing our oceans and humanity.”
As plans for the 2015 conference progressed, questions naturally arose around if and how the evaluation of the conference should be modified. After consideration, staff decided to make only minor changes to the evaluation surveys, mostly by broadening the language in survey items to be inclusive of disciplines outside of academia and scientific research. New facets of the conference experience were assessed using much of the same criteria as other aspects of the conference. Keeping the data collection consistent allowed the program to compare data from the 2015 and 2016 conferences to previous ones.
Analyses of the 2015 Futures Conference data compared to previous years suggested that the art–science interface added value to the Futures Model, which triggered wonder about how this value would translate to a more focused science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) theme. Early indicators informed the 2016 conference—which returned to the pattern of concentrating on a cross-cutting topic—while building on the experience of the general emphasis in 2015 on the art–design–science interface. Discovering the Deep Blue Sea: Research, Innovation, Social Engagement incorporated several previous Futures Conference themes, such as complex systems, synthetic biology, imaging science, and ecosystem services. The topic also extended the opportunity for NAKFI to collaborate with new internal and external partners to significantly increase its impact beyond the conference through follow-on seed grants and public engagement activities.
The conference explored the frontiers of deep ocean science, focusing primarily on the zone of transition between the solar energy-rich, productive euphotic zone and the energy-starved abyss. This transition zone, sometimes referred to as
the “Twilight Zone” due to the diminishing flux of solar radiation, is one of the least studied regions of our planet. With great potential for new discovery, there is an urgency to explore this last great frontier. The 2016 Futures Conference Discovering the Deep Blue Sea engaged scientists, engineers, and medical researchers, working with artists and designers, in an exploration of this unique habitat.
The topic of art, design, and science would challenge traditional models for funding, conducting, and engaging communities with scientific research. The National Academies’ encouragement to enlist the necessary resources and employ unconventional methods that stretched its own boundaries was essential to designing a successful experiment. Incorporating new disciplines and areas of interest in a meaningful way provided opportunities to rethink every aspect of the Futures Model.
The 2015 Futures Conference was the first time participants with arts and design expertise were specifically invited to serve as steering committee members, consult with the program, and apply for the conference. Incorporating diverse perspectives from the beginning was an important step toward welcoming creative practitioners from the arts, design, and humanities while safeguarding against the potential of discouraging applications from NAKFI’s core audience of scientists, engineers, and medical researchers. Everyone involved was conscious of operating in an uncharted space and committing to excellence in every domain. Artist, designer, researcher, and engineer steering committee members thoughtfully deliberated every component of the Futures Model, from the application process to the onsite experience and follow-on funding, often pausing to suspend disbelief that the experiment would generate desirable results.
Engaging a broader audience of conference attendees meant adjusting the language NAKFI used to communicate about the conference and reconsidering the balance between structure and self-direction. The conference application was modified to include the new disciplines and gain insight about potential thematic concentrations and imaginable outcomes from prospective attendees. A video about the conference was released concur-
rently with the application announcement to communicate that the conference organizers were sincere in welcoming new participants.
Prior to 2015, the small group topics (which had been called “task groups” or “interdisciplinary research teams” or “IDR teams”) were identified and defined by the steering committee. Attendees were assigned to a group based on one of their top three preferences and were strongly encouraged to remain in the group for the entire conference. Beginning in 2015, the small groups were referred to by the broader term of “seed idea groups,” a more inclusive description that also communicated the possibility that the seed idea could grow and change over the course of the meeting. Applicant suggestions played a stronger role in determining the seed idea group topics and in 2016 attendees formed new groups midway through the conference. Opening up the conference design in these ways created a space for previously unimagined outcomes to thrive and provided flexibility for the participants to follow their curiosity and passion as the seed ideas evolved.
Each year, small groups wrestled with how to approach leadership. These were groups of strangers from different disciplines, career stages, and organizations. Some groups would arrive at a process of shared leadership or experience while others saw the emergence of a leader everyone supported. Other groups would search for a leader without success. One way attendees expressed the quest for leadership was by suggesting that NAKFI enlist the help of trained facilitators. The challenge for the NAKFI program was how to balance the need for facilitation and support with other groups’ desires for self-direction. Most years, the small group idea worked for approximately 75% of the groups, as measured by members’ belief that their group generated a valuable approach to the idea they explored. Given the tremendous diversity of participants in 2015 and 2016, the steering committees decided that they—who were likewise diverse across disciplines and had grappled with how to best surface and incorporate the numerous perspectives during the planning of the conference—would serve as group mentors. Committee members had varying degrees of experience and comfort in this facilitative role. Most of them were skilled at mentoring individual students in an academic setting, but guiding the work of groups engaged in a creative and scientific exploration over 3 days presented different opportunities and challenges. Mentor guidelines were developed to help them in this role. The guidelines suggested periodic visits to their assigned groups and proposed questions to encourage the groups to think bigger, deeper, broader, and further into the future. Committee members shared what they observed with each other and NAKFI program staff throughout
the conference and worked collectively to support all of the teams. Most groups valued the feedback and support though some groups would have preferred to find their own way. As was often the case, mentor involvement was helpful for many, but not all, of the groups.
To support a more rapid, iterative process meant that mid-conference presentations changed from 5- to 6-minute academic-style presentations to 1-minute verbal pitches to all attendees during breakfast. Each group shared testable hypotheses, actions that could be done in a short timeframe with limited seed funding, and a list of big questions, areas of confusion, and stumbling blocks they needed help tackling. The pitches stimulated dialogue among all attendees and informed participants’ decisions to stay in their assigned group or to move to a new group. Each group outlined the context, intervention, and dream for its idea in a 10-minute presentation at the end of the conference. The format of final presentations was as diverse as the attendee composition and engaged participants with the groups’ ideas through dance, live illustration, theater, and prototype demonstrations. The accessibility of the final presentations was more inviting to a broad audience and the rigor behind the ideas less transparent than previous years, prompting some to question the depth of scientific content. The high quality and extent of collaboration evident in the seed group proposals from both conferences suggest that depth and rigor were not sacrificed by creating engaging, humorous, or aesthetically informed presentations.
In 2016, NAKFI’s graduate student science writing program became a test bed for investigating how the active participation of design students in the conference would affect the seed idea group process and generate outputs that would be engaging to a broader audience. Through a partnership with the Designmatters program of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, Designmatters students actively participated in the conference by visualizing and synthesizing ideas that surfaced during the small groups. Their work also served to document the processes and create prototypes that in some cases were necessary to achieve longer-term outcomes. The diagrams, doodles, and structures that had often been produced during previous conferences took on a decidedly higher level of artistry and technical skill.
As with the NAKFI experience in general, this component did not work well for everyone. However, for the overwhelming majority of participants, the experiment contributed to integrative creativity, cross-pollination, and idea synthesis.
In Their Own Words: The Value of Designers in the Mix…
2016 conference participants responded to the survey question: “How would you describe the experience of having design students as part of the seed idea groups?”
“I will be engaging art/design students in some of the broader impact aspects of my current projects.”
“Incredibly interesting and useful, not just in the presentation of the results but in the integrative creativity and synthesis of our seed idea.”
“Invaluable. They were fantastic.”
“Having design students involved was very valuable. The cross-pollination and ideas that evolved were very inspiring to see.”
“I LOVED THIS. I am trying figure out how we can get [an] internship for design students at science/research universities so PhD students are introduced to the concept of melting science, art, and design together early on.”
“Before undertaking conscious efforts to inspire connective inquiry, bear in mind that it seems to thrive when we’re distracted or even unconscious…. So the best thing may be to take your question for a walk. Or to a museum.”
—Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question
Art and design were also infused into the conference through creative engagements curated by the Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences (CPNAS) (see Box 3-1 and Appendix VIII). Intended to inspire creative problem solving, collaboration, a variety of exhibitions, installations, and events reflected the spirit of the gathering. The 2015 conference included 13 different multisensory examples of art/science collaborations. These happenings, both virtual and real, interrupted the usual or expected flow of the meeting and provided a platform for discussion. The artists and researchers who contributed to these creative engagements were also conference attendees. Some installations were the result of collaborations between artists and scientists. Other installations were the result of new learning models where the individual practitioners have advanced degrees and experience in both the sciences and the arts. In 2015, the installations challenged perceptions of architecture, dance, fashion, and music while reflecting contemporary issues such as climate change, environmental conservation, nutrition, and health care/wellness. In 2016, the creative engagements were focused on the conference topic of the deep blue sea (see Box 3-2 and Appendix VIII).
Responding to attendee feedback and anticipating that the ideas generated during the conference would be more amorphous than previous years, each conference devoted additional time to closing the meeting. In 2015, the closing reception was held at the nearby Beall Center for Art + Technology so attendees could experience the exhibit Objects ofWonder. For one participant, it was a highlight: “I think the best interaction experience for me was at the [Beall Center]. It was informal and there seemed to be less pressure, but still the same wonderful conference folks to interact with on a more relaxed basis. We could connect with our attention turned to something outside ourselves.” The 2016 meeting closed with a discussion facilitated by British science writer and editor Oliver Morton about art and science as a process of discovery in the NAKFI context. In both years, these closing activities were intended to solidify relationships and allow extra time for the budding ideas to grow.
In the last 2 years of the program, pre-conference activities related to both conference process—inspiring stories about art–science collaborations—and seed idea group content. Some offerings were curated from existing presentations and new content was developed to help attendees communicate across disciplines. The inspiration material appropriate for all attendees told stories about art–science “aha” moments and provided a behind-the-scenes look at planning a Futures Conference. Each seed idea challenge included a suggested list of readings and talks. Linking content with specific seed idea challenges allowed attendees to focus on the material most relevant and interesting to them.
“The tutorials set the tone and helped me connect with ideas and concepts that seemed relevant for the goals of the conference. All of the videos for our group were great! I actually had my students watch them and complete the first team exercise that our group at NAKFI worked on in the first session of the conference. The students did the work the same day that we did in the conference and it was really neat to return the next week to talk with them about what our group brainstormed and compare it with their ideas and homework assignment responses.” (Anonymous, 2015 Futures Conference Participant)
Attendees were also asked to participate in or observe something connected to their assigned seed idea group prior to the conference. The purpose of this exercise was to help them identify the meaning of the problem, explore how it fit into a larger context, and experience the topic from a different perspective. Participants shared their experiences with their teams on the first day of the conference, serving as an icebreaker to explore the various perspectives and motivations of each seed idea team member.
“[G]iving myself enough mental space to really consider the challenge, within the context of my day-to-day practice and recent experience, was super useful....” (Anonymous, 2015 Futures Conference Participant)
The additional “thinker toys” such as modeling clay, interlocking toy bricks, butcher block paper, construction paper, markers, glue, and string were introduced to help the seed idea groups communicate and visualize their ideas in a concrete way.
In the spirit of experimenting to encourage pre-conference engagement, NAKFI collaborated with an attendee (who is also a professional computer game designer and developer), on an interactive conference roster that paired an attendee’s sentence, dance gesture, or motion with an
image illustrating the attendee’s interest in/connection with the art-science interface to create a conference avatar for each attendee. Guided by IBM Watson artificial intelligence, matches were suggested using attendees’ avatars and conference data (personal statement, bio, discipline, and seed idea group assignment) and a dance, gesture, or motion recorded with attendees’ smartphones. This playful approach engaged attendees with each other and encouraged dialogue prior to and during the conference. It also explored how artificial intelligence might complement traditional approaches to building teams and developing trust, and identifying collaborators virtually.
The experiment suggested that Beth Cardier, a specialist in narrative structure, should connect with Italian artist Niccolò Casas. They followed the AI suggestion and forged a connection at the conference which led to successfully funded seed grant proposal. In their application, Cardier and Casas reported, “[t]his interdisciplinary collaboration began with a phone call between us, facilitated by Watson in the lead up to the 2015 conference. That friendly introduction began a conversation about our overlapping research in very different fields: computational narrative modeling and fashion design. Our ideas about the evolution of shape developed alongside our participation in Seed Team A, where the difficulty of creating a systems level understanding of information emerged.”
NAKFI also entered the world of social media and set up a Twitter account in 2015 that was integrated with NAKFI’s website. Participants were encouraged to use the social media platform as another means to connect with their seed idea groups and conference cohort prior to, during, and following the conference.
NAKFI tested many approaches to creating an energizing panel discussion around the conference themes. In 2015 and 2016, a group of creative practitioners and researchers kicked off the conference with a conversation about potential breakthroughs with art–science collaborations and the audience joined in an open mic question and answer and comment session. Having a conversation rather than a presentation created a more intimate atmosphere and allowed more voices to be heard early in the meeting. As one 2015 participant reflected, “When I learned during the panel that Don Ingber was inspired as a scientist by doing sculpture, I became convinced that the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] students in my … program need to engage in some experiential art activity. I have since been in touch with Don about his thoughts on structuring this.”
Expanding NAKFI’s concept of interdisciplinarity to include the arts, design, and humanities was an experiment. Veterans and newcomers who engaged with NAKFI during these years took a leap of faith together, thrived in the ambiguity of discovery, and learned a lot in the process.
During his welcome remarks at the 2015 conference, National Academy of Engineering President C. D. Mote, Jr., posed the question, “How will the new strategies impact NAKFI’s ability to accelerate innovation in a world that has changed so dramatically since the program’s inception?” The groundswell of support and early indicators suggest that the intentional inclusion of the arts, design, and humanities into the Futures Model opened new imaginative paths toward addressing the world’s increasingly complex problems and creating a hopeful future.
Navigating the unknown in 2015 and 2016 required the staff and committee members to engage in new thinking about communication vehicles, collaborations with internal and external partners, and the relevance of public engagement with the program. As explained by 2015 NAKFI steering committee member Mina Bissell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, “The addition of art, design, and the humanities engendered the empathy necessary for participants to connect deeply to the challenges and each other.”
NAKFI was part of paradigm shift that governs how researchers conduct science and the processes by which they interact. Although it is premature to draw conclusions at the time of this writing, this shift seems to have had an effect on the immediacy and breadth of program results com-
pared to previous years. The shift already has led to new fields of research, an interdisciplinary PhD program, museum exhibits, public engagement activities, and stories in high-profile publications such as the New England Journal of Medicine (Wellbery, 2015) and The New YorkTimes (Klein, 2018). The 2015 and 2016 conference summaries are in the top 12% and 23% (respectively) of all National Academies Press (NAP) downloads. The NAP
rankings suggest great interest in the topics, especially because both have been published relatively recently (June 2016 and June 2018, respectively).
Interest in the 2016 conference topic and its potential to result in new scientific insights and public engagement activities led the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program (GRP) to provide financial support for the Futures Grants following that meeting. Funding from NAKFI and the GRP awarded $1.675 million rather than $1 million in funding. GRP staff also attended the meeting of the 2016 grantees held in June 2018.
The collaboration initiated with CPNAS in 2015 to include cultural engagements in the Futures Conference proved fruitful for both programs. The focus of the fifth anniversary of the DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous (DASER) program came directly from the 2015 Futures Conference: “Ideation, Translation, and Realization.” DASER events in 2016 through 2018 featured attendees and projects from the 2015–2016 Futures Conferences and winners of the NAKFI Challenge. Feedback from this collaboration coupled with the demonstrated ability for the 2015–2016 Futures Grants projects to engage the public with important, complex issues positively influenced the way many NAKFI STEMM participants think about public engagement as an imperative rather than an option. DASER presentations are available online at http://www.cpnas.org/events/past-events.html.
NAKFI selected and co-sponsored two science “fellows” from the group of 2015–2016 attendees to attend a 30-day residency of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program the “Scientific Delirium Madness” in July following the Futures Conferences. During the residencies, six artists and six scientists explore and expand creative connections between their works. Participants create presentations for public forums and publications of essays, statements, and images of their work in both an international journal and
online formats such as websites and blogs. The residency is an opportunity for artists and scientists to work together freely in a supportive environment. Djerassi resident Asa Calow (2016) went on to found the Institute of Unknown Purpose (IOP) with fellow NAKFI participant Jim Crutchfield. Current IOP projects include “Teller: Fortune Telling on the Blockchain,” and “Disembodied Cognition: A Framework for Distributed Robotics and AI.” Djerassi resident Heather Spence (2017) also serves as a co-investigator on a Futures Grant exploring ocean memory following the 2016 conference. Spence thought about the project during her residency, “For example, what patterns are, or are not, revealed when the acoustic data skips periods of time? How does that change with different scales of time? How do the past and present lead to the future? Can the resulting acoustic datasets motivate people to choose their actions to shape the future they wish for; for example, a healthy ocean?” Spence drew from her NAKFI conference experience in how she interacted and organized projects with the other resident artists. “In fact, Anna Davidson was a resident artist during my time at the residency and I roped her into the ocean memory project,” Spence explained. “She’s formally part of it now. At Djerassi, we also collaborated on her ocean film project. I composed and played viola da gamba music for it.”
Possibly the most significant outcome in these early years is that the new paradigm has provided inspiration and hope to participants (see Box 3-4). It has stimulated new thinking about democratizing science through an expanded idea of interdisciplinarity and the important role of public engagement and communications. Contacts from and collaborations with internal and external groups during the art–science years suggest that the program’s findings shared in this publication and by NAKFI alumni will influence conversations about the future of interdisciplinary research beyond the 15-year experiment. The story of Dr. Jody W. Deming, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the inaugural recipient of the Karl M. Banse Professorship in Oceanography at University of Washington, provides a window into how professional transformation can occur unexpectedly. And this is just the beginning.
Ocean Memory: A New Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Global-Scale Challenges That Brought New Meaning to a Veteran Scientist’s Life’s Work
Just 2 years ago, Jody Deming never pictured herself leading a journey of artists and scientists more than 5,000 meters from the Earth’s surface and 4.3 billion years back in time to pioneer a new line of inquiry. It started when Deming was invited to serve on the 2016 NAKFI Steering Committee on Discovering the Deep Blue Sea for her work furthering the understanding of the behavior of bacteria living in extreme environments found in the deep sea and polar regions. She reluctantly accepted after a colleague “twisted her arm” and convinced her that it would be worth her while. “Sit in a room with people I don’t know, from all different areas, and be a mentor for a process I’ve never been through—whoa,” Deming recalled. She took the lead on developing a seed idea topic on biodiversity and mentoring the group assigned to it. She wondered how an interdisciplinary group of researchers, artists, and designers would think about investigations of the ocean’s microbiome to improve understanding of the human microbiome, and vice versa. Could the discovery of novel microorganisms or genes improve our lives? Could technology be imagined to monitor, diagnose, or treat the health of these environments in original breakthrough ways? On the first day of the conference she admitted she felt uneasy and reluctant—sentiments shared among the group. “Why are we here? How is this going to work? What is this business of putting sticky notes everywhere?” she wondered to herself. And then, after struggling together for a while, the magic happened. Standing at the white board, one of her now collaborators, artist Daniel Kohn, turned around and asked, “Well, does the ocean have a memory?” Deming leapt from her seat and exclaimed, “That’s it!” Deming’s career flashed before her. She felt as if her whole life had been the pursuit of ocean memory without those words to describe it.
Following the shot of inspiration, subgroups organized to explore ocean memory from various perspectives. At the conference, the subgroups spent their remaining time exploring questions that arose from their interactions—independently and coming together periodically to cross-pollinate. Even after the breakthrough, Deming recalled the process as invigorating and discomforting at the same time. She wondered how the artistic and scientific perspectives would converge to form actionable ideas. She was gratified when the two groups came together again toward the end of the conference to imagine a space where scientists could bring their specialized
knowledge of memory in the deep sea and musicians or painters could express that knowledge, each group influencing the other’s form of creativity and the process of discovery in this shared space: an interdisciplinary, no judgment, collaborative, something-for-everyone zone.
In later reflections, she asked, “What if we think of the ocean as the Earth’s brain and its smallest entities as memory agents? The deep sea is born in colder regions. It carries the memories of its childhood in the form of unique and measurable imprints of temperature and salinity. Childhood memories turn into adult actions to survive the latest threat.” Today, the 2016 conference groups in which Deming found herself both a mentor and a student are working to create this safe place through three interconnected Futures Grants and a NAKFI Challenge Award, Ocean Memory: A New Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Global-Scale Challenges. “Our team
of artists and researchers from along the career continuum are embracing the challenge of developing ocean memory as a provocative new line of cross-disciplinary research,” Deming explained. “To help society recognize and address global-scale problems wrought by human activity (ocean warming, acidification, pollution, extinctions) by unlocking the history of marine communities we cannot see and developing a language to tell their stories so that we can understand.” She wondered if human behaviors are risking ocean dementia. “Risking the loss of memories that could help us survive? Can a new perspective on our ocean—respecting it as the Earth’s brain and source of memory help us do better? To survive longer? To find humility?” Reflecting on the first step of this unexpected journey, Deming shared, “Through the discomfort with people coming at a subject from very different perspectives, I found my home … that perhaps I had been
holding back for 40 years. The process liberated sides of me that could view something differently than a scientist does. The 2016 NAKFI Conference was the start of it all and what, for me, may well turn out to be the capstone of my career.”
This project embodies the NAKFI experience. The Ocean Memory project seeks not only to establish this new line of inquiry but also to serve as a model for others to safely engage, co-create, and co-discover at exciting frontiers.
For more information on the three interconnected Futures Grants on Ocean Memory, see Appendix III. To learn more about the NAKFI Challenge Award Ocean Memory: A New Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Global-Scale Challenges, visit www.oceanmemoryproject.org. In October 2018, Deming and Kohn participated in a DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous program of the National Academy of Sciences on Integration: Art and STEM. The full panel presentations are available at https://livestream.com/NASEM/DASER102018.
Leveraging this lesson in new contexts:
- What is the role of creative destruction in driving scientific innovation?
- How can the Futures Model further support the integration of art, design, and science and other potential “futures” (e.g., artificial intelligence) when convening people to address a problem, question, or challenge?
- How can the model support STEMM to STEAMM (A for arts), and other variations of this concept?
- How can the Futures Model encourage the science community to engage with the public?