This post, by SFIP advisor Saul Kaplan, originally appeared on his blog at the Business Innovation Factory, where Saul is Chief Catalyst. BIF is also a valued SFIP institutional alliance member. Saul’s observations capture the essence of SFIP’s transdisciplinary process, and the role of the arts, design, and creative fields so well that we’re offering it here for the SFIP community:


I’m a sucker for any event promising an interdisciplinary experience and an opportunity to dive into the unknown between silos.  I was fortunate to attend, Make it Better, a recent symposium at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) on art, design, and the future of healthcare. It delivered. I was reminded of the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials. You got your art in my science!  No, You got your science in my art!  Art and science, two great tastes that taste good together. It amazes me in today’s always on and connected world we still have to be nudged, or for many, blasted out of our silos to experience the magic of interdisciplinary thinking and doing. The timing couldn’t have been better for a participative conversation about combining art, design, and healthcare.  There is growing recognition that our US health care system is unsustainable. The imperative is to transform from our current “sick care” system to a “well care” system. We need to go from an institution-centered approach to a human-centered approach. We need to go from tweaks to transformation. Art and design can be key enablers for transforming health care.

John Maeda, RISD’s President, always makes me think about the importance of art and design in our lives and to the innovation process.  In his BIF-6 Collaborative Innovation Summit story‘ last September John asserted that unleashing the innovation potential of the 21st century will require adding an “A” for art to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) turning it into STEAM.  Maeda suggests we need IDEA (intuition, design, emotion, and art) based thinking to make progress on the big system challenges we face including, education, health care, energy, and entrepreneurship.  I agree with Maeda and have been thinking about the IDEA of going from STEM to STEAM since his talk.  It wasn’t until I hung out at the Make It Better symposium that the real importance of moving to STEAM hit me.

It isn’t just about making sure art and design are included as part of the equation.  Art and design must be fully integrated into the equation. We can’t unleash the full power of innovation without them.  We won’t find the gold in the gray areas between silos without the integrative lens of design thinking and process.  We won’t transform our social systems without the tools of human-centered design and iterative exploration employed by designers.  We won’t enable the visceral human connections and deep engagement we need to change the world without the powerful creativity and immersive potential of art.  Art and design aren’t luxuries we get to enjoy once other more basic needs are taken care of.  Art and design are essential and must be integrated into the basic human tool kit.

Artists and designers love to force us into the gray area between disciplines and often start by reframing the questions we carry around in our heads. Making It Better was a reframing orgy. Damon Rich, Founder of The Center for Urban Pedagogy, shared his experience in designing platforms for citizen engagement.  Damon challenged us, Instead of thinking about how to improve public health, how do we make health public? Alexandra Drane, Founder and President of Eliza, asserted, It’s not a health care information problem it’s an inspiration problem. Natalie Jeremijenko, Artist and Director, xDesign at NYU, reframes her environmental research initiatives as “clinical trials” and refers to her lab as an “environmental clinic”. Natalie challenged us to view health as environment and environment as health.

The best framing question of the symposium was asked by Raynard Kington, President of Grinnell College, What if art fails to pass those cleverly designed tests of significance?  What if the notion of evidence based art, or basing artistic and design decisions solely on available research evidence, prevents us from bringing art more fully into our lives? Kington suggests that a community’s social capital relies on art and is directly proportional to its health and wellness. He rightly proclaims that art defines us as humans and reminds us our lives are not defined by the failure of our bodies. We must commit to ongoing exploration of new health care solutions informed by art and design.

Reframing the question can force us to reach beyond our comfort zones to explore the adjacent possible. Art and design are essential enablers to transforming health care. We need to move from STEM to STEAM to unleash the innovation potential of the 21st century. We need more art in our science and more science in our art.