All views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent TU Dublin in any way.


Art, Science and Innovation

I have been noticing an increasing emphasis on the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) subjects in the current debates concerning the role of education as the key route out of our economic woes. The proposition is that innovation emerges from these areas. But, is that really a sound proposition?

As consumers we generally become aware of innovation in the form of a new product or service, made manifest through some form of technology. We also know that contemporary technology requires an understanding of science, engineering and math. Therefore, it seems logical to assume that teaching these subjects will lead to greater innovation and, of course, innovation is wealth generating. So, what's wrong with all that?

What is wrong is that the proposition misses that elusive ingredient: creativity.

Last year John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, launched a programme called 'STEM to STEAM' to alert business to the importance of adding Art to the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in education and research. The website reporting on the initiative suggests the

value of art and design to innovation is clear: artists and designers humanise technology, making it understandable and capable of bringing about societal change. The tools and methods of a studio-based education offer new models for creative problem solving, flexible thinking and risk-taking that are needed in today's complex and dynamic world.

In a way, it is somewhat surprising that we need to be reminded of this in the first place. It is broadly recognised that STEM subjects on their own cannot lead to innovation. The much misunderstood element of creativity is a prerequisite to developing an innovative product or process. But, becuase the creative process is so fundamentally different from the scientific method it is misunderstood by those whose methodology is based on it. Creativity is imbued with mysticism and consigned to the arts – safely segregated to the arts community.

This belief – or, more accurately, lack of belief – was also accepted by the business world for most of the last century and into the early part of this century. That is, until Bruce Nussbaum and others began to study how entrepeneurs came up with their ideas. They began to develop a new approach to business which they called Design Thinking. At its simplest, this means applying the iterative process of design to business. The idea was was taken so seriously that university business schools in Stanford and Columbia championed it and built curriculla around it. (Nussbaum has recently suggested that Design Thinking has run its course and is now using the term 'Creative Quotient'.)

The aspect that interests me is why, when we think about education, we appear to have forgotten the advances in our understanding of how business, and the wider economy, works. The repetitive mantra emphasising the importance of STEM smacks of desperation... it ignores the need for a more holistic approach to development. The key factor of the STEM to STEAM campaign is to remind those responsible for the future shape of education that we need to be producing graduates who don't see creativity as a mystical gift granted to the chosen few but a real tool to be harnessed and used alongside those of science technology engineering and math.

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