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Neurodesign & the Roots of Creativity

Neurodesign & the Roots of Creativity

In conversation with artist/designer/neuroscientist Beau Lotto.
Perspective// Posted by: Jeff Greenwald / 14 Apr 2015
Beau Lotto, Lotto lab, innovation,

Anything interesting, anything new, always begins with a question.

Beau Lotto, the founder of UK-based Lottolab, is a neuroscientist and artist whose work combines visual perception, science and business. One of his signature projects is an app called Traces, which allows users to leave gifts for each other at various locations. The recipient’s smart phone shows a bubble floating above the landscape; when you find and burst the bubble, the gift reveals itself. Lotto loves to challenge perceptions on many levels; his projects have included “Blackawton Bees,” the world’s first peer-reviewed scientific paper written by school children. (Full disclosure: Coincidentally, Now Labs’ Creative Director is an investor in Lottolab’s Traces app)

Enter: You said in one of your TED talks that all new perceptions begin with questions.

Beau Lotto: Yes: whatever questions challenge our assumptions. Anything interesting, anything new, always begins with a question. But in education, unfortunately, the emphasis is on answers. We teach children to get the right answer. Our businesses are also geared that way—because we focus on efficiency.

Efficiency is good, of course. Efficient systems are much more likely to survive in nature. But efficiency is only half of the equation of innovation. The other half is creativity. You’re never going to get anything new through efficiency. You’re only going to get new stuff through creativity, and the root of creativity is questions. So we should be teaching children not just how to come up with the right answers, but how to ask the right questions.

Enter: Why is it so hard for people and organizations to innovate and to make changes?

BL: Because we hate uncertainty. Our brains evolved to deal with the fact that the world in which we are engaged, internally and externally, is uncertain. And when I’m in a state of uncertainty I’m scared, because it’s a risky state. And what creates uncertainty? Saying “I don’t know.” The irony is that the only way we can do anything creative is to step into uncertainty.

Enter: So fear of change causes stress, yet change is an essential part of our evolution.

BL: For sure. Because if we don’t adapt, we die. So our fundamental nature is adaptation. One of the great things about human beings is that we’re able to adapt more fully to our environment.

Enter: Tell me a bit about Seeing Differently, the book you’ve been working on.

BL: Really, what the book is trying to do is answer the question “Why?” When we ask questions, we tend to ask the wrong questions. In business, we tend to ask Who, What, Where and When questions. Those kinds of questions give us information. But pure information is meaningless to the brain; what the brain wants is meaning. So the question we should be asking is, “Why?” A marketer may want to know, “Will people like the red can or the blue can?” A far more interesting question is, why would they prefer one color or another? Because if you can answer that question, you’d be able to understand and predict when they might prefer, say, a yellow can.

Enter: Can you tell us the background of Traces?

BL: Traces is a manifestation of what we call neurodesign, in which we try to create experiences for people that are grounded in how we understand what humans are, and what humans need. Traces uses the digital to re-engage with the physical world. The content provided doesn’t exist on your phone; it exists in the world, and your phone is a window into that world. It enables you to harvest and leave traces in the world. And it emphasizes a physical engagement with the world, which is how your brain makes meaning.

The irony is that the only way we can do anything creative is to step into uncertainty.

Enter: Can you give me an example of how it’s being used?

BL: At the moment, it’s really about people who are quite close leaving stuff for each other. Because Traces creates an opportunity for you to make an effort for someone else. You have to think about what they might want. You don’t just send something to them, you send it to a location. It could be at their house or in a coffee shop, but they have to go and get it.

The Trace experiences can be a gift of wisdom—say, leaving a TED talk in a location that tells you about the architecture of that space—or a piece of music. But it can also be used very practically, like a Trace note for the UPS guy. So it augments our natural world, but it can also make reference to that world. Because when you’re looking through your phone into the world, at something floating there, your brain is actually in the world around you. It enables you to be more observant of that world.

Enter: How do you think Traces is going to carry itself forward in the business world?

BL: What we’re going to do, looking ahead, is layer and brand. A brand can leave gifts and experiences for people. Advertising tends to be passive and omnipresent. With Traces, I can be in Union Square, hold up my phone and see the different things the brands might be leaving for me. The important thing is, I have a choice. Do I want to engage with a brand or not? The agency is with the user, not the brand.

Enter: How is this good for businesses?

BL: For brands to create relationships with people, they have to change the way they engage with their audience. We know how the brain takes information and makes it meaningful—and that’s through experience in physical space. It’s through trust and relationships. Brands, ironically, have to become the source of giving as opposed to receiving. And in doing so, people will associate that brand with more meaning and value.

Enter: What is the difference, then, between neurodesign and neuromarketing?

BL: Lottolab coined the phrase neurodesign. Our intention is to bring in neuroscientists—and we use the word very generally, to include people who study behavior, anthropology, or human nature—as partners and collaborators with designers. Designers are brilliant at taking an idea and making it engaging and emotive, and translating ideas into something that people can access. Scientists are usually pretty crap at that. When you combine those two, you can take understanding and make it transformative.

Enter: I like the idea of Traces, but I have misgivings about it. I can see a potential for companies like Nike or other advertisers to plant gifts everywhere in the natural world. So going outside becomes more of a scavenger hunt than an engagement with the world. Do you see a potential danger here?

BL: We’re going to try to mitigate against that. Brands will have to work directly with us. People will apply: Can we leave Traces? As a brand? Eventually we’ll have a system where anyone can leave a public trace, but they have to say how or why they’re going to do it.

Enter: You’ve said that “Play is one of the only human endeavors in which uncertainty is celebrated.” You’ve also favorably compared play to good science, and to business.

BL: Yes—and business can become more like science. Businesses are starting to do that— to be open to possibility and to uncertainty, to be adaptable, cooperative and intrinsically motivated. Basically, what companies need to do is embody the principles of what makes good science. And to that equation I’d also add intention. Why. Why you’re doing it.

Enter: Do you feel hopeful about the way business and innovation are going right now? Or we moving toward more humanism or greater roboticism in the business world?

BL: Really good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Technology by itself doesn’t do anything; it’s the reasons behind it. I suggest that the next phase isn’t going to be about technology, it’ll be about a way of being: The positive effect you have on things around you, and how you add value to life.

I’d argue that a company that does this is more investable. Why? Because if you engage with people as human relationships do— with intention— you’ll have a more loyal audience. And that’s what companies ultimately want. So what I’m advocating is a better, business oriented, long-term strategy that also has better consequences for the world at large.

Jeff Greenwald
Jeff is a best-selling author, photographer, and monologist.