The art of innovation
The idea — art of innovation — embraces da Vinci’s principles of the “complete mind,” expressing the importance of engaging the left and right sides of the brain while stressing that connectivity across disciplines brings greater results. And UNT has long been a place that eschews the left brain vs. right brain divide, knowing that the most powerful breakthroughs happen when disciplines converge.
BY: ERNESTINE BOUSQUET
From the assembly line that led to mass producing cars to more recent inventions like the microchip, the Internet or the biotechnology revolution, the U.S. has led innovation for decades. But in today’s ever — and even faster — changing marketplace, innovation across disciplines and industries is key to finding the next big breakthrough that propels society forward.
Today’s companies that embrace innovation are those that are not only surviving, they are thriving. Google, General Electric, Tesla and Apple, to name a few. They are leading in information technology, engineering, materials and transportation — because each is highly adept at embracing multidisciplinary thought to come up with the best — and most innovative — solutions for their business models.
Intertwining disciplines to embrace discovery and innovative thought isn’t a new concept at the University of North Texas. It is part of the university’s history, going back 125 years.
“The more we develop scholarly and individual thinking in all of the disciplines, the greater our nation will be in these realms of activity. We should not base our hopes on science alone; it is the means to an end. But social science-art-music-and the humanities are equally important in solving the complex riddle of humanity’s future,” said UNT biologist J.K.G. Silvey in a 1959 speech.
Innovation: A new renaissance
In his more than 40 years at UNT, Silvey carved out a career as a scientist of the first order. Known around the world as a pioneer in the study of freshwater conditions, he held patents to improve the palatability of water and conducted some the institution’s earliest funded research in the 1930s. But something else drove Silvey — the humanities.
Silvey embraced “creative thought” and a “spirit of inquiry” as tools of his trade as much as he did beakers and microscopes. Silvey believed that mankind’s future lay at the intersection of art and science, specifically he believed in an innovative culture of research and scholarship built on principles dating to the Renaissance times — a time when art and science were not viewed as opposite ends of a spectrum, but viewed as disciplines that informed each other.
It was an era of discovery when art and science were valued equally as forms of knowledge and exploration. Leonardo da Vinci — artist, engineer, inventor — best embodied how art and science converge, and ultimately how that convergence leads to a greater understanding of the world.
Today, that concept of convergence is very much alive at UNT. This is evident with the launching of UNT’s collaborative Institutes of Research Excellence, the university’s investment in arts technology programming and in UNT’s leadership in the STEM to STEAM movement, in which art — alongside science, technology, engineering and math — are part of the innovation equation.
As a hub of creativity and innovation in all forms, UNT is championing the arts-meets-science approach to increase understanding and discovery. Faculty members are encouraging students to use art, science, technology and engineering in their general studies, projects, research and creative endeavors. Students at UNT are encouraged to develop new knowledge, create innovative solutions and shine a light on large amounts of data while bringing greater meaning to the world.
“The da Vinci model is not about left brain vs. right brain or art vs. science. It’s about engaging the whole brain and all the tools of exploration and discovery,” says Tom McCoy, vice president of research and economic development at UNT. “That’s what we’re doing at UNT — breaking down the barriers of linear thinking and fostering interdisciplinary collaborations to push innovation and breakthroughs.”
Innovation: Interdisciplinary collaborations
Creating opportunities for more collaborative, interdisciplinary work is a top priority, and university leaders are investing in spaces — labs, studios and classrooms — designed to spur the synergy between art and science. This includes an increasing focus on designing classes and programs that provide interesting intersections of disciplines.
The synergy in these recent endeavors stems from a creative spirit and a passion for independent thought that has been part of UNT’s DNA from its start. The school’s first course catalog in 1890 billed the school as a place where “students become independent thinkers and investigators.” Every generation of researchers and scholars at UNT since then has embraced this forward-looking mantra.
As a university with a strong foundation in the core arts and science programs and growing strengths in areas such as plant science, materials science and engineering, NT makes room for artists, biologists, musicians, engineers and everything in between. A musically driven engineering student, for instance, chooses UNT because he or she can study both engineering and music in world-class programs. Faculty often form seemingly unexpected collaborations across disciplines in their research and scholarship.
This collaborative, interdisciplinary approach has fueled UNT’s rise. UNT now is ranked among the nation’s 115 top-tier research universities, according to the 2015 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education™. UNT moved to the top tier “by staying true to its roots as a place that embraces creativity as way to understand, discover and solve,” McCoy says.
“These top-tier universities have a leg up in creating innovative breakthroughs,” he says. “They attract top students and faculty and are able to drive innovation and technology through high-level research and scholarship while contributing significantly to the region and state through intellectual capital and economic development.”
Innovation: Inspired by nature
Like many of UNT’s researchers, Zhenhai Xia, professor of material science and engineering, looks beyond his own discipline to find solutions. He considers the complexity of the natural world and turns to nature to better understand the nanomechanics of structured and functional composite materials.
The ability of the gecko to run across any surface — smooth or rough, clean or dirty, vertical or inverted — has long fascinated scientists. Now a team of researchers from the U.S. and China, led by Xia, have developed a micromanipulator, fabricated from polyester microfibers. Tiny wrinkled graphene thin layers are glued onto the ends of microfibers to mimic gecko foot hairs. The micromanipulator can pick up microspheres from various substrates, move and release wherever required.
This UNT-led research was recently published in Nature Communications and could be used to create dry synthetic adhesives that would be strong and reusable. The advanced adhesion technology could be used for applications such as bonding material in the biomedical field or electrical components.
“As scientists, we are working to solve big problems for society and industry,” Xia says. “Our goal is to make life easier across the board while helping protect the environment.”
Innovation: A bridge
Bridging the gap between art and science is nothing new. In fact, art and science are more intertwined than ever before in this new digital age. UNT faculty members such as Ruth West and David Stout are visually showcasing big data, information and sound to develop new understandings of big ideas.
A noted interactive video-music performer, Stout coordinates one of UNT’s most dynamic programs: UNT’s Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA).
An internationally acclaimed program at UNT, iARTA embraces a variety of collaborations with artists, musicians, dancers, engineers, physicists and more to create a wide spectrum of software solutions, technical demonstrations and interdisciplinary art works that challenge ideation. iARTA brings diverse disciplines together to create compelling expressions: dancers wired with sensors perform an interactive concert; media artists incorporate robotics and surveillance hardware in a social context; musicians compose scores based on math equations; computer-artists animate visual models from biological data.
“I have a dual focus here at UNT. In one instance, I am an active creative researcher, developing both performance and installation works that explore the dramatic potential of real-time audio-visual computational systems. And simultaneously, I have nurtured iARTA’s evolution into its present form as a nexus or network, where creative researchers, including both faculty and students, can share information, cocreate classroom experiences, projects and exhibitions. We are expanding these opportunities to include international exchange as well,” says Stout, a professor of composition studies in UNT’s College of Music.
University Distinguished Research Professor of physics and chemistry, Marco Buongiorno Nardelli is a collaborator with iARTA and one of its biggest advocates.
“I am interested in the creations and breakthroughs in technology that can be found across such diverse disciplines,” says Buongiorno Nardelli, who also is a composer and uses data from his research as a component of his music. “Working with the ever-changing dynamics found at iARTA is challenging and rewarding.”
Ruth West, an associate professor in the colleges of Engineering, Information, and Visual Arts and Design, uses art to push the boundaries of science. Her work combines emerging technologies that can help scientists see problems from new perspectives through imagery and virtual experiences. The work led by West is being fully embraced by Corporate America with businesses looking to her to analyze and understand problems.
Most recently, she joined some of the nation’s most innovative thinkers at a conference — Art and Science, Engineering and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation and Realization — sponsored by the National Academies of Science Keck Futures Initiative. She also was one of only 14 to present a “creative engagement,” an art-science exhibition. West showcased her artwork ATLAS in Silico, an interactive installation that displays data from the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition with virtual reality, audio, graphics and full-body interaction. West was inspired to create the artwork when she saw a 50-foot-long glass wall with a massive computational cluster with one tiny sign that explained the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition and its impact.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that is just amazing that it is changing our understanding of life on earth,’” West says. “It would be beautiful if you could see the data represented and interact with it with your body so it wouldn't be locked in the computer.”
Innovation: Engineering, meet art
To design more energy-efficient electrical devices, the likely place to start is with the electrical components.
Gayatri Mehta, associate professor of electrical engineering, starts with a web-based computer game, created by UNT students in engineering and communication design. The game, Untangled, requires players to unlock a series of blocks on a graph.
Mehta’s students analyze how players solve the puzzles and use the information to gather ideas on improving technology.
The roles of artists and engineers were equally important. Electrical engineers “put the science behind the puzzle,” computer science and engineering students worked on the programming. The graphics designers created the aesthetics.
“For the game, we wanted to attract a broad background of players,” she says. “It’s not just for engineers. To keep players motivated, we needed to really concentrate on aesthetics, the visual, the art.”
Untangled received the People’s Choice Award in the Games and Apps category of the 2012 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge conducted by the National Science Foundation and Science. Mehta’s NSF-funded research continues on the same science-meets-art axis. While the gamers solve the game puzzles, the engineers analyze how they solved it. They look for the strategies that help the players score higher. This information is helping engineers design faster, more efficient low-energy devices. And all of this “arts meet technology” could lead to the next generation chip designs for cell phones, medical devices and other electronics.
Innovation: Art, meet technology
All forms of art — visual and performance, music, dance, sculpture — often are appreciated mostly on an aesthetic level as a medium that uses visuals to express creativity, fuel imagination and provoke thought. Artists such as UNT’s Martin Back and Liss LaFleur are taking that one step further. They are using technology to reinvent art, find new meanings in the world and spark critical thinking.
Back, a senior lecturer, and LaFleur, an assistant professor, are part of an emerging new media art field that combines multiple disciplines with digital forms — mashups such as software and hardware, video, sound, performance and sculpture. They are leading the way for UNT’s new media art program, transforming a classroom into a hub for their students where collaboration drives an even higher level of creativity.
As artists, Back and LaFleur thrive on mixing up things. LaFleur is creating a performative reenvisioning of Surrealist artist Claude Cahun’s 1925 manuscript, HEROINES. Back designs systems comprising of custom software so they can generate new material — whether it be video or sound.
“We’re not purists,” LaFleur says. “Students who come to our program are curious about multiple forms. New media involves combining two things together and making something new.”
Innovation: Creating solutions
UNT’s researchers aren’t alone in their efforts. Taking the spark of an idea to make something from nothing is the American way. Statistics show that from 1948 to 2012 more than half of the total increase in U.S. productivity growth — a key driver of economic growth — came from innovation and technological change, according to a White House fact sheet.
Universities can — and should — lead innovation. It’s critical that public universities like UNT provide programming for students to explore their potential while ensuring there is enough space for faculty to partner with industry leaders to grow the market, create solutions for society’s biggest issues, and launch desired services and products consumers can’t imagine lives without. This has never been clearer.
UNT is doing its part. UNT is entering into its own renaissance, and opening its doors further to interdisciplinary collaborative research — in all areas from the arts to the sciences and everything in between.
“It’s imperative that we help students discover and faculty innovate through their interdisciplinary settings and work,” says Michael Rondelli, UNT’s new associate vice president for economic development. “To be stewards of the public’s trust, universities must find new ways to ensure that new ideas, new solutions — music to materials technology — find a way to market so that communities and people who live in these dynamic communities thrive.
“Universities like UNT are working to do just that.”