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The Innovation Sutras | Working at intersections brings synthesis (Sutra 4)

The Innovation Sutras | Working at intersections brings synthesis (Sutra 4)

Professor Prabhu Rajagopal explains the power of the cross-disciplinary confluence of arts and sciences in fuelling innovation, creative synthesis and technological advancements.

Artists and philosophers have long been inspired by the possibility of bringing together insights from multiple domains to create a union of great beauty. Popularised by the composer Richard Wagner in the 1850’s, the notion of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ or “total or consummate work of art” has remained a highly-praised goal across art and architecture.

Prominent artistic movements of the last century such as Art Noveau, de Stijl and Art Deco drew upon Gesamtkunstwerk to create enduring edifices such as the Casa Batllo (in Barcelona, Spain), Rietveld Schr¶der House (Utrecht, Netherlands) and the Empire State Building (in New York, USA).

Although shunned as a term by postwar thinkers, the paradigm of integrated creative development encompassing all aspects of a given art (such as exterior and interior works and furnishing in the context of architecture) continues to remain relevant across several domains including music, urban development and even gaming.

During the interwar years, the influential design school, Staatliches Bauhaus, based in Weimar Germany, was committed to the Gesamtkunstwerk vision of bringing together all arts. In addition to technical faculty, teaching staff at Bauhaus also featured such prominent artists of the day as Wassily Kadinsky.

Moreover, sport and physical activity were integral to the inter-disciplinary goals of Bauhaus. Vkhutemas, the Russian equivalent based out of Moscow, was also a sister movement.

The confluence of fine arts and crafts as envisaged by Bauhaus, have gone on to revolutionise the practice of engineering and industrial design.

The deep influence of this school on modern arts and design is underlined by the efforts by the European Union, towards a New European Bauhaus (NEB) launched as recently as 2020.

It is now the norm in industries such as automotive and mobility for example, for experts from different technical and artistic domains to come together to co-create products and solutions that incorporate key elements of aesthetics in addition to mechanical performance.

Famous automotive design pioneers such as Dick Teague (of American Motor Company), William Lyons (Jaguar Cars, UK), Patrick Le Quément (Renault, France) Marcello Gandini (Lambhorgini, Italy) and Chris Bangle (BMW, Germany) bring multi-dimensional elements drawn from art and engineering to their oeuvre.

Largescale scientific projects such as space and nuclear programmes across the world including teams at the various national agencies (USA’s NASA and ISRO, IGCAR, BARC etc. in India) and international efforts such as Laser Interferometric Gravitational Observatory (LIGO), European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) etc. often involve joint efforts by scientists, engineers, technicians and even philosophers.

This brings us to the next Sutra – Sutra 4: Working at the intersection of disciplines brings synthesis

Here, we must distinguish the term ‘synthesis’ in light of philosopher Immanuel Kant, as the process of generating new insights from known observations, through a process of cultivated scientific intuition, as opposed to ‘analysis’ that is based on ratiocination.

The coming together of not just different specialisms in science or engineering, but also those of arts, philosophy and physical activity, is often at the heart of path-breaking innovations.

Such cross-disciplinary teams are able to work at the edge of imagination and produce breathtaking disruptions, giving us technological advances including the internet, consumer electronics, advanced and reliable computing, nuclear power and the global positioning system (GPS).

The confluence of arts is also essential to the data revolution sweeping across the world. Subbu Iyer, CEO of Giggr, a startup focused on digital transformation through deep insights gathered from data, says:

“The synthesis of design is at the core of data science: moving from Master to Meta-, empirical, analytical and contextual to interpretive data. The disruptive transformation from application of analytics is manifesting everywhere, from conventional industrialization of rooms to personalization of travel experiences.”

IIT Madras with its unique connection to the scientific and engineering communities in Germany at its foundation, has always fostered a spirit of ‘multi-art’ training and practice.

A commingling of the arts with technical training had been attempted as early as the late nineties through the concept of ‘Minor streams’. The workshop has always been integral to an IIT Madras engineering curriculum as is the stadium and the theatre.

Activities such as the Center for Innovation have thrived at the boundaries of different engineering and scientific disciplines, leading to unmatched innovations and products. We discuss the virtuous cycle of fostering impact in the next article.

– Article by Professor Prabhu Rajagopal, Faculty in-charge, Centre for Innovation (CFI), IIT Madras; recipient of prestigious early career awards including the IEI-National Design Award, and the National Swarna Jayanti Fellowship.


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