A ‘Nexus Thinking’ approach to tackling issues like ocean pollution addresses the context that created the problem in the first place

Complex thinking for a world of complexity

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Interconnected problems in an increasingly complex world require solutions based on the fusion of technology, science and the arts, says Julio Ottino.

On the cover, above the title ‘The Nexus’, there is a two-line slogan that reads: ‘Augmented thinking for a complex world.’ Below, there is a sub-title of similar length, positioning the book as an invitation into the arena of “the new convergence of art, technology, and science”. ‘The Nexus’ looks and feels more like a manifesto than a straightforward analysis of the locus where everything in the modern world meets.

That’s part of the point, for ‘The Nexus’ is more than a book: it’s a literary artefact that brings together art and design, photography and typesetting, philosophy and history. To be fair, its author Julio Ottino and his visual collaborator Bruce Mau have warned us: “Today’s complex problems demand a radically new way of thinking.”

There is no single elevator pitch for ‘The Nexus’, says Ottino. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent even a few minutes with it. While there are superficial resemblances to a conventional publication about complexity – structure, linear narrative, case studies – it is also a multi-dimensional experience. Vast, intricate visual renderings of complex ideas, wide-ranging photography and parallel text typesetting all combine to create an experience for the reader that is defined by being able to move around in different directions. Although it has a start, middle and end, there’s no need to follow that order, and in some ways it’s better if you don’t.

Ottino says: “The arts and technologies are the largest domains of accumulated activity in humanity. But there are lots of misconceptions about how they work when you look at one domain from another. We go through life and receive an education that provides us with a pair of glasses that allow us to see the world. An anthropologist has a different pair of glasses to an economist, and that will be different to how a physicist sees the world.”

However, he continues, if you have the right combination of curiosity and inclination, “you can work to acquire a second pair of glasses. What would happen then?” It’s not as simple as an engineer thinking like an artist, he says, “but it helps if we try to understand how other domains think”. The reason for this is that “we equate outcomes with domains. But we don’t look into the thought processes responsible for those outcomes.”

What this means is that there is a kind of intellectual culture war going on in which scientists assume that artists are driven by subjective concepts such as inspiration, while conversely “people from the artistic domain think of science as something which is just rational and logical: they don’t understand the passions that move people in those domains”.

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‘The Nexus’

If we are to find creative solutions to current and future global challenges – pandemics, climate change, food insecurity – we must apply lessons from the convergence of art, technology and science. It’s no longer enough to comfortably sit in one space while constructing barriers around it. We need to look at what happens where these three domains meet and to get stuck into some joined-up thinking, says author and academic thought leader Julio Ottino in ‘The Nexus’. In his provocative book, Ottino maps out what he calls ‘augmented thinking for a complex world’. To do this, he has enlisted the collaborative talents of legendary designer Bruce Mau, whose contribution is a masterclass in ‘Nexus thinking’ – making sense of the complexity – that the book advocates. No less than a manifesto for the future, ‘The Nexus’ is a powerful tool for leaders who want to think differently.

What’s interesting about technology, says Ottino, “is that it sits between these two domains”. In science, we build our arguments on the work of those that have gone before us, “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Meanwhile in art – especially modern art – “it isn’t a good idea to stand too close to anybody”. But with technology, “the only reason to stand on the shoulders of a giant is to crush it. Technology replaces previous technologies not because the earlier argument has run its course” – here Ottino explains that we continue to design new chairs even though their fundamental blueprint has remained unchanged for centuries – but because innovation has led you to want a new prevailing outcome (“we must come up with more chairs all the time”). With technology existing somewhere between art and science, “the argument of my book is this: if you could understand this relationship you would end up with a broader mindset from which to produce ideas”.

‘Technologies replace other technologies because you want a new outcome’

Julio Ottino

The problem with the post-​digital world is that global challenges are coming at us thick and fast, and the only way we can solve them at the rate they need to be addressed is to combine the best current thinking from all domains. This is the second of Ottino’s elevator pitches for ‘The Nexus’. In fact, this is the nexus, the point where domains cease to compete from entrenched silos and start to join up in ‘augmented complementarity’.

To illustrate this, Ottino tells a lengthy anecdote about when he was a consultant for Unilever, who defined his role as an agent provocateur. “They gave me access to everything they were doing in science and technology, visibility of the management structure, and they wanted me to question what they did.” One of the outcomes was that he advised Unilever to hold a symposium on complexity. The meeting was held in London at Tate Modern in a conference room overlooking the Millennium Bridge. “At that moment, I could say that the meeting represented the confluence of art, technology and science.”

Ottino, who is a Guggenheim fellow and a founding co-director of Northwestern University’s Institute on Complex Systems in the US, says that he has been thinking about the relationship between these three areas for most of his life. A polymath, he’s been an artist, an educator and a scientist working on chaos theory. He was also selected by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers as one of the One Hundred Engineers of the Modern Era. “For me, these domains were never really separate. They were always connected.” But it wasn’t until he met Bruce Mau that he was able to express nexus thinking in a concrete form. “We wanted the way the book was constructed to portray the essence of the ideas within it.”

It’s almost inevitable that ‘The Nexus’ will be received by some critics as fancy academic thinking that can’t have any practical applications for solving real-world global problems. In other words, sceptics will say that it has all the hallmarks of an extended thought experiment where an educator and an artist have come together to ask a massively ambitious version of the question “what if?”.

I put to Ottino that there are massive international economic shocks threatening our energy future. There are worldwide public health crises. There are wars, climate emergencies, ocean pollution, poverty and so on. What has thinking differently – using ‘Nexus thinking’ – got to do with any of this? “When you look at a problem with one lens you tend to clean up that specific problem, but you eliminate the context that made the problem hard in the first place. Nexus thinking isn’t about bringing together people with different skills. It’s about understanding how they think. Then you need enough people to provide the connective tissue. And that’s how to confront big problems.”

‘The Nexus’ by Julio Ottino and Bruce Mau, is from the MIT Press, £36 (hardback)


When engineering meets art

Nexus thinking is an important part of the spectrum of world-​leading organisations, one extreme being unstructured Nexus-based art practices morphing into structured enterprises. Nexus thinking manifests itself in two ways. Surface-level Nexus thinking is apparent when technology/science visibly blend with arts, or when hard-core engineering emerges in products infused with raw emotion.

Nexus thinking is also present when analytical thinking and creative thinking coexist synergistically; when deductive and inductive thinking operate side-by-side to complement each other. This is embedded-​level Nexus thinking. It is not visible in products per se, but apparent in how the organisation thinks and works.

Under Steve Jobs, Apple boldly declared that its products are “designed in California”, thus moving this integration to the forefront via inspired design and, in the process, creating the most valuable company in human history. Others also occupy this space, many preceding Apple, and new ones have emerged. Tesla and SpaceX are notable examples; both represent swerves, discontinuities on multiple fronts with the past. Pure engineering drives the SpaceX rocket’s designs, but engineering and human-centred design blend seamlessly in Dragon’s revolutionary spacecraft designs.

Teaming up with artists may be signifiers of the expanded thinking characterising some of these organisations. Planet.com, which presents itself as “an AI organisation that has deployed the largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites in history”, has had artwork laser-etched into the side panels of the more than 150 satellites it has launched; technological considerations did not drive this decision.

Edited extract from ‘The Nexus’ by Julio Ottino and Bruce Mau, with permission.

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