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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Creating Things That Matter

The Art and Science of Innovations That Last

David Edwards

Henry Holt and Co.



Most things we create will not matter. This book is about creating things that do. It is about how we create things that bring enduring value to the planet.

We get the general idea of creating when we build our first sandcastle. Write our first short story in school. Tell our first convenient lie. Creating for our own purposes turns out to be an easy matter. It is when we create value for others over a long time that we evoke the idea of the sublime.

Creating very new things that durably matter is one of the most difficult things we may ever attempt. The process looks radically unlike the cutthroat stereotype of innovation success. Empathy counts more than selfishness, innocence more than experience, aesthetic intelligence more than engineering brilliance, and humility more than arrogance.

By aesthetic characteristics more commonly associated with artistic expression or creative play, artists, scientists, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, and other creators pioneer frontiers, discover, and occasionally create things that change how we live and think.

Aesthetics matter—what seems not to matter is precisely what does.

Aesthetics are the ways of the mindfully engaged creator and the qualities of the remarkable created thing, like the Sistine Chapel or quantum mechanics. By aesthetics, art and science each advance frontiers, and in the exploration of the unknown, these famous opposites become the same.

Experiential aesthetics has roots in the social, technological, and cultural upheavals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote in his Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic that the common definition of aesthetics, as a set of principles defining the meaning of beauty, had lost meaning. It was nonsense to define beauty in painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, and other art forms by fixed rules amended by continual corrections. Aesthetics related more obviously to process than to outcome. According to Croce, it made art and science one. The American philosopher and educator John Dewey, in his Art as Experience, carried the argument further. Beautiful forms successfully express sensitive human experience. Anything might be beautiful. A novel, a dance, a bridge. The more universal the experience, the more associated with the very long arc of human existence, the more a finely achieved expression, or creation, seems to be art.

Creating Things That Matter is about how we can learn to create this way, what it means to each of us personally, and why it promotes the creating of a world we actually want to live in. It is about how we observe, dream, and act in a way exemplified by the practices of some of our most notable creators—a process that is at once new to our boardrooms and business schools and as old as humanity itself.


Creating in a World That No Longer Exists

Dad was bigger than any father I knew. As long as we lived together, I was in awe of him. The electric trains I received for my birthday never entertained me as much as they did when he came into the basement to spend an afternoon with me building fantastic mountains our trains could climb and colorful villages they could meander through. The tomato I carried onto the porch with a shaker of pepper didn’t taste nearly so good as it did when he walked out there with me and showed me how to sprinkle and bite, sprinkle and bite, with red juice running down our chins.

When my dad sat down to watch a football game, I instantly wanted to do the same, and when he roared with pleasure or fury, I roared too.

He loved to teach, and I suspected his students to be like a second family to him. It worried me a little. Whenever he invited his students into our house, I watched them carefully, as if some of my dad had rubbed off on them and not me, and by close observation, I might gather up these missing parts and be made whole. Once, when I was thirteen, he spoke over the phone to a student about a chemistry problem. The conversation went on and on, right there in the center of our kitchen where my mom sometimes made delicious chocolate chip cookies, and behind her back, my dad would snatch for us globs of dough. It was exasperating to me, this nonfamily chemistry talk. “Stop!” I yelled. I couldn’t stand the idea that there was this piece of my dad I couldn’t have.

He was my dad. He was mine and he was incomparable. Next to him I felt empowered, yet I also felt alone, as if I stood next to a brilliant warm sun that sometimes blinded me. When I left home, my dad and I saw each other less frequently. After college, grad school, and postgraduate studies, where I improbably moved from a community college to MIT, I started to travel, to do very new sorts of things, and discover worlds that my dad didn’t know. I moved to Paris and opened my lab to the public, calling it Le Laboratoire, where I staged wild exhibitions that explored questions like the meaning of “now” with the South African artist William Kentridge, and flash culinary sensations with the French designer Philippe Starck.

One day in the midst of all this, I was invited into a radio studio for an interview. It was a rainy day, and I recall entering the studio on rue de Cléry with wet jeans and a distracted mind. Two technicians greeted me at the door, ushered me into a tiny room, and set me before a thick microphone. They placed a heavy headset over my ears. I heard a voice, deep and familiar. The NPR journalist, based in Atlanta, asked me if I’d like to sing. I laughed. What a question, I thought. No, I said, I had no singing talent at all, to which the man replied, Neither does my wife, and yet you just asked her to sing. His wife happened to be visiting Paris. She had experienced an exhibition at Le Laboratoire called Vocal Vibrations and had just phoned him from the Charles de Gaulle Airport. How amazing, I said. I hope she enjoyed it, but I still won’t sing for you. We both laughed, and I opened up as I’m sure he supposed I would.

Midway along, the journalist asked me if I had a single person to thank most for my creativity. I thought about it. Yes, it was my dad.

He asked me what secret my dad had shared with me.

He had done one thing, I replied, and it had changed me forever. My dad got down on the floor and played with me. We made up games with toy soldiers and invented together. Lying there on the cold cement, we were collaborators, a kid and his dad, cocreators of things that mattered.

I choked up. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Here I was before a complete stranger in the middle of an interview. It was crazy. This journalist had somehow gotten to the core of me. In the sound booth, I had gone back to creating with my father in the basement of our tiny suburban house, and it hurt me to have to leave.

Recollections like these can be powerful, all the more as childhood creation differs so fundamentally from how we create later on. As kids, we create a story, a toy house, or a personality, mindful and imaginative, with little clear idea of what our project will become. This adventurous approach—or “third way”—to creating often gets sidelined as soon as we enter school, where we learn to advance along one of the two standard paths of contemporary creation, the commercial and cultural paths, with their regulations and constraints.

In the commercial approach to creating, we try to discover and meet a consumer or general public need before anyone else does, so that we profit, and the world profits, at least for a while. Commercial creating is competitive, like a sport, with success supported by some combination of scientific discovery, technological mastery, commercial expertise, and reasonably free markets. The commercial model, by which we might create a new airplane or an original kind of shoe, requires significant resources and aims to pay these resources back in the span of a few years.

In the cultural approach to creating, we express personal experience and artistic inclination in forms—like new books, musical compositions, or choreographies—that may eventually change how people think and live. Cultural creation happens on a less specific time frame than commercial creation does. Cultural creating can cost almost anything, and while creators sometimes reap profits, their returns are generally less tangible, as in learning or some kind of humanitarian or cultural contribution. The goal of cultural creation tends to be personal, with reward deriving from the expression itself.

Commercial creating is like tossing a dart. We aim and throw, and either hit the target or miss it. Cultural creating is like hiking through an uncharted canyon. Riveting while meandering, it succeeds by leading us to places of surprise.

The dart-throwing method gets credit in our schools, corporations, and governments for working best. So rapid and effective have we been over the years with commercial innovation that it has become synonymous with what we think of today as creation. Even films, books, music, and storytelling games are largely now made using the same strategy by which we make a new cell phone or a car. They greet the public by way of commercial process, since near-term profitability matters more, in the bottom-line business of culture, than long-term transformative impact on how people will ultimately think and feel.

As to resource allocation, the commercial camp again beats out the cultural camp. Statistics reveal why. Thanks largely to the commercialization of scientific and technological advances, average human life expectancy has shot up since 1900 from around thirty to over seventy years of age, while the probability of infant death has fallen from 35 percent to less than 5 percent globally. Health inequalities between countries, ethnicities, and income levels have mostly fallen over this same time, and childhood malnutrition rates have gone from an estimated 35 percent in developing countries and 22 percent in developed countries in 1900 to less than 5 percent globally today. People all over the world now enjoy broad access to education, running water, waste treatment, information, entertainment, and more. On the whole, thanks largely to the commercial model of creation, we live better today than we ever have.

The things we have made to live comfortably have obviously mattered. Beyond the direct benefits they bring to us, they also bring indirect benefit by employing us in their economies of production and exchange.

Suddenly, however, our many inventions, from skyscrapers to polyester clothing, point to global crises. Our dilemmas range from disappearing jobs; growing scarcities of water, minerals, clean air, and other natural resources; mass animal extinctions; spreading plastic gyres in the ocean; rising sea levels; and widening health care and education inequalities. The sources of our problems go beyond the things we have made, how we have made them, and how we dispose of them when their utility is gone and lead to a host of consequences, some intended and many not. We have more children surviving and living longer, everywhere, than at any time in human history. Modern communication and transportation have blurred the lines of country and village, home and office, disrupting traditional ways of organizing ourselves into groups with common interests. A created thing, like an iPhone, can alter the lives of billions, while a tweet sent from an iPhone in Washington, DC, on a Sunday evening at seven o’clock, just before many people are sitting down to dinner, can generate news around the world and set nations on the path to war.

We have, of course, met tall challenges many times in human history. None of these obstacles may seem insurmountable given the creative solutions we’ve come up with in the past. But commercial innovation is clearly falling short of addressing today’s challenges. For a few decades now, we have recognized the liability of poor air quality, which shortens lives; fossil fuel consumption, which heats up the planet; and sugar-derived food addictions, which aggravate the global obesity pandemic. Each of these problems has one or more scientific and technological solutions. Still, commercial creators (producers of cars, oil refineries, and food manufacturers, among others) have mostly failed to invest in the innovations that might promote a healthy human condition in the longest term, if simply because it is economically advantageous to avoid it in the shortest term. Commercial innovation cannot value what it cannot measure, and in the commercial model, the net present economic value of the distant future is negligibly small. Our cultural mode of creating, which invites us to feel the world around us and to create things that express what we feel, mostly flourishes outside the institutions we use today to change the human condition, with the consequence that its impact on how we think and live is not as great as it might otherwise be.

Besides this, changing the human condition today will be harder than it was in ages past. We live better, not worse, than we did a century ago. Creating things that entice well-fed people to eat differently for benefits they won’t immediately feel will be more difficult than creating things that help people eat. Creating things that get people to manage their own health and wellness when they do not feel sick will be more difficult than creating things that heal wounds and kill disease. And creating things that help people connect to others and dialogue when they are already massively connected in modern social networks will be more difficult than creating things that connect people living in isolation.

In these and other examples of the challenges we face, we have less and less chance to point to personal benefit as a principal motivation to adopt new things. We need to point to an attractiveness or “beauty” that transcends personal benefit, disrupting markets whose basic needs are already addressed, as James Dyson did for home appliances (from the bagless vacuum cleaner to the bladeless fan), and Elon Musk did for the electric car (with Tesla).

Aesthetic creating, the “third way” to create, happens to be the most natural kind of creating there is. A sensitive encounter with the world leads to a new creation that expresses what we feel.

A child creates aesthetically when she twirls a pirouette before her older brother, doodles on a piece of paper during class, or writes a first love letter. She experiences the world with innocence and sensitivity, hoping, noticing, and feeling what older people often will not. She expresses her impressions with a created thing, the pirouette or the love poem. Seeing what she has created changes her in some way, as does watching how others respond to it. They may see in her doodle or in her love letter something she did not previously reveal, and they understand her better for it. Possibly they will be moved and for a little while think or feel differently as a consequence.

All of this can, of course, be said of Michelangelo’s ceiling mural in the Sistine Chapel or Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, next to which the child’s creation is a hint of possibility, like an aroma, transient and fragile.

Aesthetic creating may end up changing the world, but it starts in fragility, making it reliant on supportive culture.

It was out of gratitude for this that I lost my voice on the radio.

Copyright © 2018 by David Edwards