Welcome to "Science Champions." I'm your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
In previous episodes, we have talked about how science impacts our lives in many, many ways, from cell phones, to solar panels, to gene therapy. Science drives the technology that we use every day. But science is more than the latest iPhone or the new prescription drug. At its core, science is a way of thinking. It's a framework for investigating the world around us. Thinking like a scientist can help build knowledge and drive innovation wherever you work, from the lab to the boardroom.
My guest this week is an expert in applying scientific thinking to the business world. Rita J. King is a futurist, an entrepreneur, and the co-director of Science House, a New York based consulting firm. Welcome, Rita.
Rita J. King: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
JS: Can you talk about your background and how it led to your current position?
RJK: I had one day in my childhood that was my own personal big bang. My father was attending…he was going to Columbia University, and he allowed me to skip school and go with him one day. And it happens that on this day, he had a physics class. And in the class, they were talking about quarks. And the quarks, which are subatomic particles, had very interesting names, charming and strange. And I was fascinated by this. And I was still buzzing from the class when we went out to lunch. And he taught me how to eat with chopsticks. And then that afternoon, he had another class and they were showing a, I would say, an age-inappropriate black-and-white French film, which, of course, completely riveted my attention. So I had this one day in childhood, where I was exposed to physics, culture, and art in the same day, and my entire life has been unfolding from that day along those trajectories.
Later, I became an investigative journalist, and I specialized in science. And I love complicated systems, and thinking about how you can break them down to their component parts. So you can really start to address the root cause of why something is happening rather than, you know, the symptoms at the edge. And so I started off way back when, as a community reporter, and I would attend planning board meetings, zoning board meetings, all sorts of meetings, and I started to see how civic society was put together at that level. And from there, my sphere of exploration continuously expanded, until I was working globally.
And at the same time, I had started an accidental company writing stories about people's lives for private use and families, so they can understand one another on a deeper level. And so I became simultaneously fascinated by the role of the individual and the systems in which individuals function. And my entire life has been really informed, and my entire career, by that. So I view myself, you know, when I hear a question about my education, you know, I did have a formal education, but I think all of us are obligated and also it's a pleasure to continue being lifelong learners. And so every day, my education has never stopped. I'm learning every day. And none of us have ever faced this unusual crossroads in the history of humanity before. And so we all have a lot to learn right now.
JS: What is Science House, and what does it do? What's the difference between what you do and let's say a standard creative process, you know, agile thinking?
RJK: Science House is a strategic consultancy in Manhattan, in New York City, founded by James Jorasch, who is an inventor, and an entrepreneur, and a chess expert, and an improv teacher, and I have been the co-director of Science House from the beginning of the consultancy being formed, and I'm a futurist. And so at Science House, we say innovation without imagination is directionless, and imagination without innovation is philosophy.
JS: How do Science House apply scientific principles to the corporate world?
RJK: The most important thing to keep in mind about science is that it is a journey of curiosity, filled with inevitable failures, if you will. Now, from a corporate perspective, very often, those failures are treated as sources of humiliation for the people or the teams who failed. But the reality is that it is an inevitable part of taking risks, and exploring options and possibilities. And so for every 10 possibilities that you explore, you know, 7 of them may lead to dead ends, but 2 of them might be great, and 1 of them might be a grand slam. So science is all about learning from what came before, you know, questioning your assumptions, being curious, and really communicating clearly, what you have learned both, you know, affirmatively and negatively, so that other people don't have to start from scratch on the same path.
So we really believe in scientific literacy and I don't mean that every person has to, you know, drop everything and start understanding quantum physics, although we have a lot of fun trying, but more along the lines of understanding the scientific method. There is an art to the scientific method. And it is very effective in many ways when you're trying to collaborate with other people and learn.
JS: Now, you have said that the world is entering the imagination age, can you define that term?
RJK: I noticed after I worked as a journalist, and started working with large companies across industries, I noticed that they all have the same problem, which is the attempt to leap out of the industrial era and land straight in the intelligence era, without any period of transition in between.
And in the industrial era, things are very tangible and heavy, right? If you were producing cars, the conveyor belt moved at a certain pace and everyone was trying to figure out how to make that conveyor belt move more quickly, so that more output would occur. During the industrial era, if you were at work, you knew it. You punched in and I'm not here to glamorize life in factories, but at least you knew you were at work. When you punched out at the end of the day, you knew you were done working.
Now, by contrast, as we head into the intelligence era, we don't know when we're at work and when we're not. We're reachable, you know, most of the time, except for sleeping. And even then, the phones chime, I'm sure there's lots of people who get up at odd hours to work. And we cannot move any faster, we've reached the limits of speed. And so we have no choice except to get smarter. And when you look at the products of the intelligence era, they are much more difficult to understand. They are not tangible or heavy, in many cases. Data, insights from data, algorithms, machine learning, these are all extremely complex concepts. And within large companies that have been around for a long time, you have a pile of what I call spaghetti code, just sitting there with all these complex interdependencies and it is extremely difficult to modernize the technology when you have all these touch points interacting in ways that are mysterious to most people.
So I created the imagination age as a transition concept from the industrial era, to the intelligence era. And the main skill in the imagination age is what I call applied imagination. And if you think about getting anywhere from point A to point B, and point B may change, but for the sake of this example, let's pretend we know where we're going. On the path between A and B, there are tangible elements, and there are nebulous elements, much like the industrial era and the intelligence era. And so the skill of applied imagination is the ability to let go of things that appear tangible, but are actually outdated, and to start to understand things that are nebulous, but very important as we move forward.
And so it's a way to pause, and take a breath, and take stock of where we are, and think more clearly and in a focused way about how to reach our intended destinations more quickly and effectively. And hopefully have fun while we're doing it.
JS: Okay, how does the scientific mindset help workers in the imagination age?
RJK: Scientific thinking is a sense of curiosity about everything. And there are scientists who are hard scientists, you know, chemists, physicist, biologists, and even in those cases, we're starting to see a lot more interdisciplinary efforts between them. Very interesting, you know, the mind and the brain, for example, those have been typically two different domains. But, you know, AI is forcing them to come together in new ways.
And by the way, I prefer the term applied imagination to artificial intelligence, because I don't believe that there is such a thing as artificial intelligence. I think it's either all real or none of it is. And that's another thing we're going to be grappling with. So scientific thinking helps us question our assumptions and think differently about the world, which gives us an opportunity to take part in the world in a way that is meaningful.
Again, you know, there's levels of scientific literacy, there's the further down the rabbit hole you go, there's always more to learn. And I personally recommend people become as scientifically literate as they can. And the people who really try to become scientifically literate will find themselves in a wondrous world of constant amazement. But for everyone else, just understanding the scientific method and understanding how to be driven by curiosity, and questioning your assumptions, and being willing to let go when something isn't working, and to keep embracing an experimental approach to creativity will really change your world.
The main point of the imagination age is to ask ourselves, what kind of future do we want to shape instead of just letting the future happen to us? And the future is made up of, you know, countless mini futures, if you will, right? Even at this moment, you know, 2018 is the future to people who came before us, right? So all of us are in different realities, even as we speak, and the collection of those realities is the "future." But each of us can contribute to a better outcome in many, many different ways. And so one of the reasons scientific thinking is so important in the imagination age is it gives us a path forward to feel like we're contributing more effectively to the kind of future we want to inhabit.
JS: What do you think is the value of scientific thinking for people who are not in scientific fields?
RJK: I am very interested in the intersection of art and science. And by that, I don't mean that all artists need to be scientifically literate, or that all scientists need to be artists, more that I personally think the most interesting art being created right now is informed by scientific literacy. I'm a futurist at the National Academy of Sciences, the Science & Entertainment Exchange, and I work on film and TV projects, for example, trying to make the science more sound. That's the mission of the Science & Entertainment Exchange.
My role is, as a futurist, I work on projects, trying to help them bring, you know, I invent futuristic technologies, for example, storylines, architecture, but that's a field that is traditionally not considered scientific. So you can create a beautiful story, but people who are scientifically literate might look at it and flinch because you are defying the laws of physics in some way, for example. Or you create a storyline that's sophomoric because our thinking has advanced past it. Obviously, on screen, novelty wins over science, and I accept that. But at least there's an effort to make sure that the thinking is scientifically relevant to whatever degree it's possible or advisable. So that's one example in my own life, you know, working on film and TV projects. It's very interesting.
JS: So how can science communicators persuade people to see the value of scientific thinking?
RJK: When people look around at their homes, even the most modest home tends to be more luxurious than royalty lived, let's say during the Renaissance. They have indoor plumbing, for example, and refrigeration. And, you know, ibuprofen if they have a headache, and, you know, a stove to cook on, the internet, you know, these things. So there's always been a group of people who are the creators of these technologies, and then the vast majority of people are consumers of these technologies and scientific discoveries. And when someone goes to the hospital and, you know, receives medical treatment, they don't need to understand the history and trajectory of how that treatment was created, and discovered, and practiced, they just need to know they leave feeling better.
So of course, it's a challenge because most people…you're asking people to operate at a higher brain state to try and understand where the things they consume came from. I mean, even if you were to find out the complete history of the shirt you're wearing right now, where were the fibers grown, if they're natural? If they're not natural, where did they come from? Who made them? Where was that shirt before you had it? It's an incredible story. Every object comes with it so much data that is really hard to understand.
So if you start with the perspective that there's a mind-boggling complexity behind everything, and very little incentive to bother trying to learn that, then the next question becomes, how do you inspire people to want to understand science? And a great example recently is Caveat in New York City, it's a intellectual nightclub, they call it. They're doing incredible work doing funny shows, or highly entertaining shows that inspire scientific literacy without expecting people, you know, to leave with a master's degree, right?
So it depends what your goals are. Obviously, if people are not inspired to pursue scientific thinking and science, we're going to have fewer excellent scientists and institutions. And that's a societal problem. So I think the goal is clear communication that is extremely accessible to people, and not to feel that it is...you're not dumbing it down if you make it understandable and enjoyable for people to learn about science. So it's really its own skill to be a science communicator, and I think we're seeing a lot more people get better at that skill. And so I'm hopeful that as that practice develops, we'll be inspiring more people.
And then, you know, finally, there's also of course, the institutional issues that prevent some of the people, you know, including women who are interested in science from pursuing careers in science. And so I'd like to see clear communication that gets people excited and a thorough examination of the institutions and systems that foster science and also an assessment of risk. Are we funding the right kind of projects or are we funding safe projects because, you know, they're easier to understand? And one of the reasons I love 3M is because 3M is very smart about how they pursue the development of very good science in a number of key ways.
JS: We talk a lot about the importance of women in STEM on our podcast. Is there a female scientist that you particularly admire?
RJK: Yes, there are many. I will start with Lisa Randall, the physicist, who has written some excellent books and is very inspiring to me, not only as a lay person who is passionate about physics, but also when it comes to thinking about creativity in general. She's just incredible. Then there are inventors, including a woman named Denise Barbut, who is a named inventor on I don't know how many hundreds of patents and is just an incredible scientist and so focused. Heather Berlin, when it comes to understanding the mind and the brain, she is one of the most interesting, and provocative, and just, you know, I love her whole approach to science and to science communication. You know, Heather Knight, is an incredible roboticist. I mean, I could name women in every field. There are just so many interesting scientists out there who are women, it's wondrous. And I highly recommend that people, you know, get into their work, because you'll just learn so much and have fun doing it.
I will add, if you think about something like the Large Hadron Collider, or any large project that requires thinking from different places around the world, diversity is not just nice to have. It is a necessity when you're bringing together people to do anything that requires serious intellectual rigor in a new frontier. Because that diversity, whether its cultural, or, you know, gender, or whatever the case may be, enhances, it creates what I consider a constructive tension that, handled correctly, can accelerate the development of great thinking. And so we need to stop thinking of diversity and inclusion as something that we're doing that's, you know, to quiet the people who are upset about the lack of diversity and inclusion. It benefits everyone, it benefits society, and it just leads to better outcomes.
JS: Thanks for joining me, Rita.
RJK: I've enjoyed every minute of it. The questions have been excellent and I hope that someone out there who's listening gets inspired to take a new approach to science.
JS: Scientific thinking can help us discover the structure of an atom or the shape of a galaxy, and actually can show just how similar the two are do each other. But even if you work with spreadsheets and web browsers, instead of microscopes and beakers, it pays to think like a scientist. That mental framework, that combination of reason, logic, curiosity, and wonder can help you make innovative breakthroughs wherever you work.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.