Augmenting Our Thinking through the Nexus of Engineering, Science, Technology, and Art

Broaden your problem-solving horizons

Today, more urgently than ever, we need to augment our thinking.

The world faces enormous challenges of unprecedented complexity—problems that intertwine in a dizzyingly interconnected, interdependent, and changing landscape. Few of them—especially those dealing with energy, environment, and social structures—admit clean solutions with clear endpoints.

How can we increase the chances of finding creative solutions? One way is to augment our thinking spaces, bringing in thinking different from our own. Both the number and the diversity of ideas will give rise to creative solutions.

One way to augment our thinking spaces is by blurring the boundaries among the three largest domains of accumulated human creativity—art, technology, and science. Such a unification bridges very different (albeit simplistically characterized) ways of thinking and working: the analytical, logical, methodical, sequential, and convergent, the kind of thinking normally associated with the sciences; and the creative, holistic, exploratory, metaphorical, and divergent, typically associated with the arts, and in this category I zero in on the characteristics of the contemporary art world. Intertwined in the totality of this landscape is engineering, a connector that shares elements with science, technology, and, to a lesser, but no less significative extent, art.

To begin to augment our thinking, and then to function in and capitalize on this augmented space, it is important to see how engineering fits in the landscape of art, technology, and science. Not all technology emerges from engineering and not all engineering thinking results in technology. Humanity has been doing technology since long before engineering became an established discipline—think, for example, of the Bronze Age and Roman aqueducts—and lots of engineering thinking has resulted in scientific advances. And, as I shall argue, though perceived as the most inward looking of the domains, art has a crucial role to play in augmenting our thinking.[1]


Much is revealed when we compare the domains of art, science, technology, and engineering. Without knowing their incentives, objectives, and ambitions, it is almost impossible to connect across the domains to produce the synthesis needed to effectively expand the thinking space.

Common belief has placed artistic creation on the highest plane of creativity, giving rise to a persistent myth: equating art with creation, and creation with inspiration. Reality is more complex and far more interesting. There are, in fact, creative processes and lessons that can be transferred across domains. But transferring lessons requires translators; we cannot translate languages that we do not understand. Bridging this gap is the task at hand, and as a starting point it is helpful to understand:

How do the domains evolve?

Science’s edifice is built on the foundation of previous science—as Newton put it, “by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In technology, however, the only reason to stand on the shoulders of giants is to crush the elder giants. A new technology appears before the older one has run its course. And in contemporary art it is a bad idea to stand next to anybody. “Derivative” is not necessarily a bad word in technology—adaptations and remixes are good; but in art the word has a negative connotation.

Science builds on the past. Although science occasionally produces radical disruptions (like quantum physics, and post-DNA molecular biology), the idea of incremental progress is part of its very fabric. The biggest discovery of science is science itself; it is how science grows. In a normal mode, science is about methodically building and adding knowledge.

Technology, on the other hand, is about both building and disrupting. In a way not dissimilar to science, most technology follows the pack and builds on what has already been accomplished. But disruption, whether on a minor or major scale, is essential for growth. The culture of technology embraces innovators and has developed a mythology of the garage. Today the startup is technology’s paradigm of disruption.

Artists live in a more chaotic world. They pose problems rather than solving them. We see the outcomes of their thinking but rarely the contours of the thinking itself. They are generally better than engineers at divergent thinking—they can start with very rough ideas, learn what is needed to tackle the issue at hand—and they are accustomed to learning approximately, shaping the ideas over time, and not converging too quickly.

Engineering cuts across all three domains, but especially those of science and technology. The relationship with art is more complex. In some cases the art component is clear, as in the interface between architecture and structural engineering and in anything connected with data visualization and all aspects of product design.

Understanding across the domains is key to augmented thinking. Engineering is commonly thought of in terms of specialization and branches, and there is still a tendency to equate engineering and engineers with their products instead of the underlying thinking processes that cut across all branches of engineering, the seamless overlaps with science, or the fact that engineering products may not be physical things but systems. Outsiders equate products with the disciplines themselves, a fragmented viewpoint linking, for example, computer engineering with computers and aerospace engineering with rockets and planes, without taking account of the thinking and creativity inherent in their ultimate design.

Like artists, engineers leave an aesthetic trail of ideas bifurcating and evolving through rough sketches, complex drawings, models, and mockups. Photo-realistic computer virtual reality renderings, 3D-printed working prototypes, and other images and objects are often beautiful and even artistic.

But is any of this art? No.

One does not stumble into art any more than one stumbles into a scientific discovery or into building an elegant machine or an elaborate complex system. Intent matters. Without intent there is no art, and art is not the intent of science and engineering. What counts is the thinking that goes into the outcome. So, too, the real value is in understanding thinking spaces different from our own—and augmenting our thinking spaces.


Science is about making the unrecognizable recognizable, turning the unfamiliar into the familiar, and seeing a thread of unity behind dissimilar phenomena. An example from my own work, resulting from hours spent in coffee shops, may serve to make the point. The sight of milk gently mixing into coffee may be a soothing experience for many; but as I watched I realized that isolating the essence of how the milk mixes into the coffee, and distilling it into a theory of mixing, might explain how regions can remain unmixed in oceans or the persistence of Jupiter’s red spot.[2] This is the essence of science: finding the simple picture that contains all pictures.

Art is the opposite. It is seeing something that one may have seen a hundred times, but in a different light that makes the familiar unfamiliar. This is “bestrangement” as the Russian Formalists called it, or “perplexion.”[3] Sometimes described as the moment of awe, it is a first step toward a critical engagement with art.[4]

Art is far more than the aesthetic concerns of shape, color, and composition. It is about the why’s and how’s of a thing. But it leaves the answers up to interpretation and questions unresolved: it bestows on the viewer the role of completing the work—inviting us to participate in a change of perception by making distant and perhaps implausible connections that could not exist without a confrontation with the art itself.

Art need not be driven by a purpose, at least not one that can be captured in a compact phrase. Objectives in contemporary art are as varied as artists: to provoke, incite, irritate, challenge, reframe, shock, nauseate, reveal. Art exists essentially for its own sake. Some say art is a form of response to the world, an attempt to capture something about it, to put a lens to some feature of reality, or conversely to turn a mirror back on us. One could argue that herein lies its utility.

Science and technology, on the other hand, are driven by purpose and objectives that can be simply encapsulated: Technology is about invention; science is about discovery. Engineering is about both. All three may be variously associated with disruption and progress.


Because the connection between engineering, science, and technology, on the one hand, and art on the other may not be intuitive, a few comments about contemporary art may be useful.

Modern art’s aspiration is uniqueness; disruption and progress have little or no meaning. The challenge for contemporary artists is not to extend an existing historical cultural line (that role has been handed off to craft) but to break from that line and create a territory not already occupied—a new form of expression that is not necessarily “better” but different and recognized as a new space.

Contemporary art embodies mind-bending, challenging, thought-provoking, unclassifiable, and perplexing works, without any discernible mainstream and geographical centrality. There is a constant string of biennials (and some triennials), monumental exhibits, and amazing building investments in new museums by renowned architects.

It is no longer possible to talk about the art world only in terms of the West. New York City was once at the center of everything; now the center could be Houston, Ghent, Antwerp, São Paulo, or Dubai. It seems like yesterday that Beijing and all of China were superhot; now they are almost passé.

In addition to the constantly changing center of gravity there is a blurring of art, education, and commerce. Artists, entrepreneurs, collectors, museums and galleries, critics, academic institutions, and impresarios intersect in ever-evolving ways. PhD students write dissertations on 25-year-old artists, bypassing the test of time; MacArthur genius grants confer instant credibility and celebrity; markets make stars and then quickly abandon them; the art world morphs into the art market. It is enough to make the world of technology seem almost sluggish by comparison.

Because contemporary art is constantly looking for new spaces, art serves as a metaphor for speed, chaos, and complexity. And if there is one thing that will characterize the world going forward, the one sure prediction we can make, it is that chaos and complexity will increase.

Engineering cannot—and should not—be expected to keep up with the modus operandi and culture of the art world. But, for those receptive to new ideas and seeking to expand their horizons, an awareness of art’s dizzying and divergent ways will undoubtedly enrich and expand the landscape of their engineering thinking.


Can the art/engineering interface work when actually put to the test—can artists and engineers with loosely defined objectives be brought together to find common ground and engage and define projects as coequals? The answer is yes, but this must be curated, not forced.

At my own institution we have tested the idea with self-selected groups and loose objectives. In classes that combined engineering students with students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and from Northwestern’s Department of Art Theory and Practice, groups developed new ways of visualizing social inequities in Chicago transit, games to facilitate interaction with autistic individuals, and more. The most rewarding outcome, however, was the collision of thought processes among team members and the fact that they could collaboratively define and move forward in projects. Multiple other team-based courses overseen by engineering, under the umbrella name NUvention,[5] involve teams of engineering students with students from medicine, business, law, social sciences, journalism, and virtually any other major at Northwestern.

To move beyond small, self-selected groups who are often eager to interact, it is necessary to overcome stereotypes. Both sides have a romantic, almost cartoonish, view of the other. Most engineers equate art with creation, beauty, inspiration, and sometimes struggle, and they envision art as paintings, photographs, and sculptures, leaving out conceptual art, installations, and much more. Most artists equate engineering with cold technology, methodical logic, and practicality, and not with the human factors and passions that animate the practice of engineering.

But it is precisely in the hidden similarities and opposites that interesting things happen. Contemporary artists are more entrepreneurial than ever. This is fortunate as it creates opportunities to expand the engineering/art interface. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle,[6] a colleague artist and MacArthur fellow, has had collaborations with geneticists, meteorologists, iceberg hydrologists, and systems engineers. Dario Robleto,[7] a transdisciplinary artist who is artist-at-large at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and the Mary and Leigh Block Museum, has had fruitful collaborations with colleagues in synthetic biology. And there are more and more artists like them. Collaboration and conversation with artists are enriching ways for engineers to start to expand their thinking.


Many of the above ideas are developed in a new book, The Nexus,[8] the nexus being defined as the space where art, technology, and science coexist. One can talk about nexus thinking, nexus individuals, and nexus organizations, with creative high-functioning teams. How creative organizations are assembled, and run is crucially important, but it is apparent that no single approach exists. Creative output has sometimes emerged without a visible master plan—as if a rare combination of ingredients magically clicked.

A few examples illustrate some relevant points.

An Art Component in the Heart of Engineering. James Watt (1736–1819)—member of the Lunar Society, elected fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a central figure in the Industrial Revolution—is mostly remembered for his contributions to the development of the steam engine. But he had another side, one that represents a now-lost connection between engineering and artisanship. The contents of an attic workshop in Watt’s home reveal that he applied his knowledge and skills to devise new technologies in connection with sculpture. He invented and constructed a pair of 3D pantographs: one made copies of sculpture, the other reduced-size copies. By taking and evolving an idea to develop an actual product, he arguably exemplified an ability that led to Britain’s emergence as the first industrial nation. (Photo credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library)

The Lunar Society, a product of the Enlightenment, largely centered in Birmingham, lasted about 50 years (ca. 1765–1813) and connected two distinct groups: people who were interested in knowing things—natural philosophers (the scientists of the day)—and people who were interested in and knew how to make things—the engineers and industrialists of the time. A century later, the Bauhaus, which lasted only 14 chaotic years (1919–33), created a disproportionate and remarkably lasting influence by breaking the barrier between fine art and applied arts. A few years later, under the legendary Vannevar Bush (1941–47), the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) blended academic research, engineering, and the military world, which led to a remarkable output of working innovations. And from the 1940s through the late 1970s, freedom to explore ideas, massive resources, and blurring of the boundaries between pure and applied research drove the unparalleled output of scientific and technological innovations produced by Bell Labs, making it the most innovative technological and scientific organization in the world.

The Lunar Society had no central commanding authority—everybody was equal—and left no products that can be readily identified with it; by design, it connected people who until then were disconnected. The Bauhaus had towering figures as leaders, a clear philosophical viewpoint, and a structured curriculum predicated on the holistic intersection of all arts. OSRD bridged domains that operated with completely different value systems but were able to synergize in ways that could not have been anticipated by looking at them separately, all with light top-down management. Bell Labs’ exceptional scientific and technological innovation expanded the boundaries of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics by artfully mixing thinkers and doers; again, hands-off managing was the strategy.

The Lunar Society was protoscience, proto-engineering and technology, and no art. The Bauhaus was art and design accompanied by technology. Bell Labs was a magic blend of scientific, engineering, and technological innovation, as was OSRD, possibly an ideal blend between engineering and science. None of these examples perfectly balance and synergize all pieces: art, engineering, technology, and science.

History shows the power of intersections, what happens when different groups share ideas and communication barriers disappear.
What if art is added to engineering, technology, science?
What cuts across all these examples is the power of intersections, what happens when different groups share ideas and the barriers of communication disappear. What if art is added to engineering, technology, science?

As I’ve explained, the thinking in art is radically different from that of standard engineering. At its best, art does not solve problems; it creates questions. There is no inevitability in art. Contemporary art appears to be driven by replacing and disavowing heuristics; if a heuristic exists, its purpose is to replace any semblance of continuity. This constant exploration is part of the value that art adds to the mix.

Examples show that something magical happens when art, engineering, technology, and science work together. Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company founded by George Lucas when he began production of Star Wars, and Pixar—linked to both Steve Jobs/Apple and Disney and known for a string of successful feature films powered by its own image-rendering applications—exemplify the art/science/engineering/technology space. Financials illustrate this success. So does Apple. I’m sure readers can come up with other examples.

Engineers and artists connect through the need to make things. At a high level of abstraction and production the differences between artists and engineers blur. They both rely on a singular need, craving, or obsessiveness and an ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. The value in the intersection resides in enriching and learning how the other side thinks.

While we hope engineering thinking will be embraced by more domains, it is also clear that engineering can benefit from incorporating ideas from fields such as art. Remarkable things can happen when boundaries are removed and our thinking spaces expand.

[1] Much has been written on the role of visual imagination in engineering and technology. An example is Eugene S. Ferguson, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye (MIT Press, 1992).

[2] Ottino JM. 1989. The mixing of fluids. Scientific American 260:56–67.

[3] Erlich V. 1981. Russian Formalism: History – Doctrine, 3rd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[4] Ottino JM, Morson GS. 2016. Building a bridge between engineering and the humanities. Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb 14.




[8] Ottino JM, with Mau B. 2022. The Nexus: The New Convergence of Art, Technology, and Science – Augmented Thinking for a Complex World. Cambridge: MIT Press.

To view the initial publication, click here.

Discover the world of nexus thinking

In this provocative and visually striking book, Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau offer a guide for navigating the intersections of art, technology, and science.