The art of innovation

Dr. Terry Cutler

Originally published: Business Review Weekly29 June 2001

Having just been appointed Chairman of the Australia Council, the Federal Government's main arts funding and advisory body, this column provides my first chance to explain the linkage between the arts and industry innovation. After all, its because of this link that I see a seamless overlap between my arts role and my industry interests.

The arts are important in their own right, expressing the soul of a community and the spiritual and intellectual journey of its citizens. It is not to denigrate the arts in their own right, and on their own terms, to point to the significant role of the arts in scientific and technological endeavour. At the same time, digital arts and electronic media - media energised by truly interactive electricity - are currently re-shaping both our cultural and industry landscapes.

A few weeks ago I chaired a meeting in Adelaide on collaboration between the arts and technology. The highlight of the meeting for me was a couple of presentations from participants in demonstration projects funded by the New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council.

One exciting project is SymbioticA, a collaborative research laboratory within the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia. Here visual artists and biologists work together in a science laboratory, both examining tissue cultures through different lenses. A director of the laboratory explained how "I no longer know whether I am looking at something as a scientist or an artist". In saying this he echoed, uncannily, the comment by Leonardo da Vinci's latest biographer, Shermwin Nuland the Clinical Chair of Surgery at Yale, who writes of da Vinci:

"He studied geometry, mechanics, the flight of birds, animal and plant biology, optics, military engineering, hydraulics, architecture - he began to see art from what might be called the scientific point of view. And the converse was also true: He was seeing science from the view point of the artist".

The Ars Electronica expo is angling for the whole SymbioticA laboratory to be relocated to Austria for their next gathering! Importantly, the laboratory has attracted the interest and involvement of Perth venture capitalists.

Another project is based at Lake Technologies in Sydney, a firm which specialises in advanced digital audio systems. Here one of our new media artists, Dr Nigel Helyer, has been a resident artist working on sound landscapes and "audio virtual reality". This collaboration has already generated six technology patents, and Nigel is regarded as a core member of the R&D team.

CSIRO and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have also hosted artists in residence within research areas. Supporting these artists-in-residence has demonstrated the huge potential value of cross-disciplinary collaborations between the arts and technology. But it is only the tip of what could be developed in serious centres of excellence and collaboration: what we need are local versions of Nicholas Negroponte's Media Lab at the Massachussets Institute of Technology.

Creativity, and particularly digital arts, will become increasingly important in wider community innovation, especially science and technology. My working formula for country success in the 21st century is:

a dynamic Information Society as a function of creativity plus knowledge.

The role of creativity in the innovation process is not well appreciated locally, unlike the United States or Europe where groups like the MIT Media Lab have shown the benefits of interdisciplinary research, and Blair's cultural policy for the UK emphasises the importance of community creativity - from schools to research institutes and corporate boardrooms.

There is huge potential in such creative collaborations.

One high potential area will be around digital aesthetics and digital design. As David Gelertner reminds us (in his excellent and stimulating 1988 book The Aesthetics of Computing) software should be beautiful and elegant, yet everyday we are brutalised by the ugliness of Microsoft code. We all know that the personal computer is the most unnatural kind of human interface device imaginable. The over-the-horizon revolution that will be driven by speech recognition and the next-generation design of man-machine interfaces has the prospect of transforming the role of technology in our lives and work. Creative artists will be at the centre of these next revolutions, creating technology enabled solutions that, like all good tools, extend our human capabilities and horizons.

Gelertner points out that software should be beautiful. Technological design is all about aesthetics. And innovation is a creative process.

When Prime Minister John Howard launched the Government's Innovation Statement last February, he spoke about the package as just one staging point in a longer journey, not the end point. Hopefully the next staging post is a focus on creativity, and creative arts and industry collaborations.

If we want to be anywhere in the global Information Economy, we must turn ourselves into a creative country. That is why institutions like the Australia Council are an essential element in a national innovation strategy.